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Google to destroy private browsing history of millions who used 'Incognito Mode'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It turns out that Google's Incognito web browsing mode has not been incognito after all.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah, the tech giant says it will delete the browsing data of millions of people who thought they were searching privately. It's part of a settlement in a class action lawsuit that found Google's Incognito mode did not live up to its name.

MARTIN: NPR's Bobby Allyn is with us now to explain what this all means. Good morning, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: OK, first, could you just tell us what's in this settlement?

ALLYN: There will be changes to how people search the web and new disclosures, but no money. Back in 2020, a group of consumers filed a $5 billion class action lawsuit against Google. It alleged that Google was tracking and collecting data on what people were searching for and what sites they visited, even when they were in this so-called Incognito mode. That's a setting of Google's Chrome browser that, you know, is supposed to let you surf the internet in a more private way. Turns out, not so much.

And so Google has agreed, as you mentioned, to delete billions of data records from people who were using Incognito mode. Google is going to give people more control over what's being collected, and the company now has to be more clear about what kind of tracking it is doing. Yet Google got something out of this, too. It won't be paying any monetary damage to consumers or any fines.

MARTIN: That's interesting. No money for consumers and no fines. So how did Google get away with this to begin with?

ALLYN: For the past 16 years, Google has offered this service, this Incognito mode that did limit how much data was being collected if you just were on the Chrome browser. But here's the rub, Michel. As soon as you went to any website on the browser, Google got the data anyway, kind of through a backdoor, because those websites were using tools to track users and Google owned those tools. So nothing we do online is invisible and this is a reminder of that. Now when you launch an Incognito session, you can stop website cookies from following you around the web. That is new and a part of this settlement. Google also now has to tell people right on the landing page of Incognito mode what the limitations are - that, yes, some data is still being tracked by Google.

MARTIN: If Incognito mode isn't really incognito, why do people use it?

ALLYN: Yeah, I mean, that's something that Google rank-and-file employees have been asking for years. As part of the suit, lawyers obtained all sorts of internal emails with Google engineers pushing back against Incognito mode. One engineer wrote, quote, "we need to stop calling it Incognito and stop using a spy guy icon." And that was referring to this little spy guy cartoon logo that was trying to convey that you can do things secretly when you browse this way. Another engineer wrote a Google manager that Incognito's branding should actually be, quote, "you are not protected from Google." I talked to Woodrow Hartzog. He's a privacy law expert at Boston University. And he says the spy guy branding coupled with Google saying Incognito mode provided private browsing just gave everyone the wrong impression.

WOODROW HARTZOG: At one point it was someone who had their, you know, hat pulled down and their collar pulled up. And it made it seem as though you would be safer here than you would be using the general mode. If you're going to offer that service, then you've got to be able to back it up.

ALLYN: And that's essentially what this whole lawsuit is about, Michel, Google not being able to back up its privacy claims about Incognito mode.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thank you.

ALLYN: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And here I'm going to note that Google is a financial supporter of NPR. Although we obviously cover them the same we would anybody else. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.