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Incognito Browsing Isn’t as Invisible as You Think

Google agrees to settle class-action lawsuit that asked for $5 billion in damages

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If you’re concerned about Big Brother watching your every move online, private companies, not the government, have taken on this role 40 years after the setting for George Orwell’s dystopian 1984.

Advertisers, other companies and search engines monitor your online activities so they can serve you ads targeted to your interests. The practice is legal, but many people see it as an invasion of privacy.

And if you want to thwart that spying, opening a private tab in your web browser — what Google Chrome calls an incognito window — won’t always accomplish what you want it to.

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Google agrees to settle $5 billion class-action lawsuit

In late December 2023, Google agreed to settle a $5 billion privacy lawsuit alleging that it misled users into believing the company wouldn’t track users’ internet activity in incognito mode. The class-action suit filed in 2020 that covers incognito users since June 1, 2016, maintained that Google continued to catalog website visits and other data about users’ friends, finances, hobbies, shopping habits and “potentially embarrassing things” they pulled up online.

By settling, Google says it will delete billions of records that reflect customers’ private browsing activities, data worth billions of dollars to parent company Alphabet. If Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers approves the settlement in a July 30 hearing in U.S. District Court in Oakland, California, the company will avoid a civil trial that could have given monetary damages to users.

Google is also pledging to be more transparent in what information it says will be gathered and will “limit” what it collects, allowing users to block other companies’ cookies for five years by default. But all the specifics are not spelled out in the settlement.

That’s important because even though Google is not a data broker that sells information about you to other companies, it knows enough about you through your browsing habits, clicks on sites that run its code, search queries and YouTube views to paint a picture of you that’s more complete than if separate entities were in charge of each area. Google serves you ads based on what it knows, and advertisers want to be a part of what targeted customers see even if the advertisers themselves don’t have that complete picture.

What an incognito mode really does

In web browsing, what any private window really does might be vastly different from what you think. You’re not the Invisible Man, hiding out wherever you want on the World Wide Web.

Websites know you’re there. Your own computer is the one with amnesia after you’ve closed out your private sessions.

All mainstream browsers — including Apple’s Safari, Chrome, Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox — have an “incognito” or “private browsing” mode. Though the steps may vary by browser and whether you have an Apple Macintosh or Microsoft Windows operating system, much of the time you can start a private session under File | New Private Window or New Incognito Window.

Your Android or Apple smartphone browser also supports a private mode. Tap the icon in the lower right corner of your iPhone’s Safari app to open a tab and choose Private, which is a typical way to get started.

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Your cookies, little packets of data that websites deposit on your computer like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs in the forest; search history; and website data are automatically removed after you close your browser. So the browser has no information for companies and advertisers to use later and no trail to follow for someone else who shares your computer.

Something you may not realize: A private browsing window doesn’t keep websites from monitoring what you do while visiting them. Nor does it prevent your internet service provider (ISP) — or your employer if you’re using a work computer — from seeing all the sites you’ve gone to.

Private search engines won’t save your queries

For greater privacy, use a private search engine that won’t monitor or record your queries or sell that information to third parties.

However, when you click on a link to visit a website, that particular site can track your actions while you’re there. And your ISP and employer can follow your activity.

Some popular options include Brave Search, DuckDuckGo, Qwant and Startpage, all of which are free. The main drawback: These sites may not provide the variety of results you would get from Google or Microsoft’s Bing. But you should still be able to find what you need.

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Add privacy-minded extensions to your browser

An extension or plug-in is a piece of software downloaded and added to your browser that provides additional features and capabilities. Some are free, while others can be purchased for a one-time fee or have an ongoing monthly or annual subscription fee.

Certain extensions will help protect and preserve your online privacy. You can install an extension in any browser, including Chrome, Edge, Firefox or Safari. Here are a few geared toward privacy:

  • Disconnect shows you the names of specific web trackers for each site you visit and lets you stop them from snooping on you.
  • Ghostery will stop ads and trackers by letting you choose among four types of blocking.
  • Privacy Badger tries to learn which sites attempt to track you and then blocks that tracking.
  • uBlock Origin is an ad blocker that stops pop-up ads and prevents them from sending your private information to advertisers.

Disable Facebook monitoring

If you use Facebook, be aware that the company likes to track you even when you browse to other websites via a feature known as Off-Facebook Activity. The purpose is to monitor your shopping interests and buying habits so you’ll receive targeted ads when on Facebook.

You can disable the feature if you don’t want Facebook to snoop on you this way. On your Facebook page, go to Settings & Privacy under your profile picture Settings ⚙️ | Your Information | Off-Facebook Activity.

Select the link for Clear previous activity to remove any past monitoring from your account. Next, select the link for Manage future activity. Choose Disconnect future activity ◉ to fill in the circle and stop this type of monitoring.

This story, originally published Dec. 15, 2021, was updated with information on the Google lawsuit settlement and new instructions on how to keep your internet browsing private.

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