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Google to delete search data of millions who used 'incognito' mode

Google will destroy "billions of data records" of peoples' private browsing history as part of a settlement disclosed on Monday over the company's web-tracking practices.
Matt Slocum
Google will destroy "billions of data records" of peoples' private browsing history as part of a settlement disclosed on Monday over the company's web-tracking practices.

Google will destroy the private browsing history of millions of people who used "incognito" mode in its Chrome browser as a part of a settlement filed to federal court on Monday in a case over the company's secret tracking of web activity.

For years, Google simply informed users of Chrome's internet browser that "you've gone Incognito" and "now you can browse privately," when the supposedly untraceable browsing option was turned on — without saying what bits of data the company has been harvesting.

Yet, according to a 2020 class-action lawsuit, the tech giant continued to scrape searches by hoovering up data about users who browsed the internet in incognito mode through advertising tools used by websites, grabbing "potentially embarrassing" searches of millions of people. Google then used this data to measure web traffic and sell ads.

"Google has made itself an unaccountable trove of information so detailed and expansive that George Orwell could never have dreamed it," wrote lawyer Mark Mao and other plaintiffs' attorneys who sued the company.

As the suit was pending, Google changed the splash screen of incognito mode to state that websites, employers and schools and internet service providers can view browsing activity in incognito mode. But under the deal, Google will have to state that the company itself can also track browsing during incognito mode.

In addition, when users are using incognito mode, Google will by default block third-party companies from tracking peoples' so-called cookies, which is how advertisers glean information about a person's search history.

Class members, who include the tens of millions of people who have browsed using incognito mode, will not receive any monetary damages. But individual users are able to sue Google in California state court to recover money over the covert data tracking, according to the agreement.

In a statement, Google spokesman José Castañeda said the company is "happy to delete old technical data that was never associated with an individual and was never used for any form of personalization." He pointed out that the lawsuit sought $5 billion in damages, but Google will not be making any payment as part of the proposed settlement.

The deal, which averts what could have been a lengthy and costly trial, comes as Google defends itself against lawsuits brought by the Justice Department over the company monopolizing online search and a separate action aimed at Google'sadvertising business.

Google employees complained to management about incognito

The suit revealed that Google saved the standard and incognito browsing history of users in the same profile. That data was then used to inform personalized ads that the company served up.

"Even when users are browsing the internet in 'private browsing mode,' Google continues to track them," according to the suit. "Google's tracking occurred and continues to occur no matter how sensitive or personal users' online activities are."

Lawyers representing the consumers who sued Google cited internal emails from the company showing employees complaining to management about incognito mode not living up to its name.

"We need to stop calling it incognito and stop using a Spy Guy icon," an engineer wrote to Google colleagues in 2018.

Another Google employee recommended changing the incognito splash page to say: "You are NOT protected from Google."

The suit referenced an email sent by Google's marketing chief, Lorraine Twohill, to CEO Sundar Pichai suggesting that the company was misleading the public about the browsing tool.

"We are limited in how strongly we can market incognito because it's not truly private, thus requiring really fuzzy, hedging language that is almost more damaging," Twohill wrote Pichai in 2019.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers originally set a February trial date for the case, but that was put on hold in light of the agreement hammered out by both parties.

The deal still needs final approval from Gonzalez Rogers.

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Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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