‘Incognito’ Web Browsing Isn’t That Private, Google Study Finds


Google sucks up consumer data in ways that users may find surprising, such as when browsers are in “incognito” mode, according to an analysis of the company’s data collection by a researcher at Vanderbilt University.

The study, released Tuesday and commissioned by trade organization Digital Content Next, examines how data is collected from all Google products, including Android mobile devices, Chrome web browsers, YouTube and Photos. In addition to incognito data collection, the study examined other “passive” means of collection, where “an application is instrumented to collect information while it is running, possibly without the user’s knowledge.” , indicates the report.

Many users assume that when in incognito mode their online fingerprints are hidden. But Google could retroactively link private browsing to specific consumers, the report points out.

As the reports say: “Although this data is collected with anonymous user IDs, Google has the ability to connect this collected information to a user’s personal identifying information stored in their Google account. “

Here’s how it works: Someone initiates a private browser session in Chrome. On websites that serve ads from Google’s online advertising market, anonymized cookies are placed on the browsers associated with the user. If the same person signs in to a Google service like Gmail or YouTube, signing in to Google connects the previous web activity to the now logged in user. (Except, that is, cookies have expired or have been manually deleted by the user.)

“It’s not well understood by consumers,” says Douglas Schmidt, study author and professor of computer science at Vanderbilt University. “But if you read the fine print in ‘incognito’ mode, it brings up a lot of warnings.”

The study could not say whether Google takes the necessary steps to link anonymous private browsing data with de-anonymized data when the person logs into its services.

“Google collects all the information necessary to establish this connection,” explains Schmidt. “It would give them a relative advantage over anyone who cannot make that correlation.”

“If a user is ‘incognito’ they think they’re as private as possible, and they don’t realize they gave it all up because they logged in,” says Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a business group known for its opposition to the online dominance of large Internet companies. “It’s reasonable to think that the average user doesn’t expect this to happen.”

According to an email from a Google spokesperson, the company does not “attach logout activity with your Google account information.” We do not associate incognito browsing with accounts that you can log into after leaving your Incognito session. And our ad systems have no special knowledge of when Chrome is in incognito mode, or any other browser in a similar mode (eg Safari Private Browsing, Firefox Private Browsing). We simply set and read cookies as the browser allows. “

The Google spokeswoman said the company disputed the report in general, citing the fact that Schmidt, the Vanderbilt University professor, had previously been used as an expert witness on behalf of Oracle in a case against Google, and the involvement of Digital Content Next.

“This report is commissioned by a group of professional DC lobbyists and written by an Oracle witness in connection with their ongoing copyright litigation with Google,” the spokesperson said in a statement by e -mail. “So it’s no surprise that it contains extremely misleading information.”

Location, location, location

The study also says that Google gets a feel for a person’s location every time they connect to Wi-Fi or their phone ping a cell tower, which can even help determine a person’s mode of transportation.

“Google can determine with a high degree of confidence whether a user is walking, running, cycling, or boarding a train or a car,” the report said. “It does this by tracking the location coordinates of an Android mobile user at frequent time intervals in combination with data from on-board sensors. [such as an accelerometer] on cell phones. “

Google Photos is another vast store of data thanks to image recognition, according to the report. By default, Google scans photos and detects landmarks, logos, animals, and other features, and it even records the emotional state of people’s faces.

“Google’s face detection capabilities can even detect emotional states associated with faces in photos,” the report said.

The report was particularly concerned about the amount of passive data collected by Google, including information obtained through ads and web activities and third-party applications not directly owned by Google. The report claims that two-thirds of the data collected by Google would be considered “passive”.

“While this information is generally collected without identifying a unique user,” the report says, “Google has a distinctive ability to use data collected from other sources to de-anonymize such a collection.”

The study comes just as lawmakers in Washington are considering tougher privacy regulations. The EU already promulgated its stricter General Data Protection Regulation in May, and Facebook and Google are facing similar pressure in the United States to explain how they track consumers online.

In April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about Cambridge Analytica, the third-party data company accused of misusing the data of 87 million Facebook users to improperly influence elections. in the United States and the United Kingdom.

A major concern of some US lawmakers during these hearings focused on how Facebook tracks consumers who don’t even use its services by collecting data through third-party websites with Facebook “Like” buttons and “To share”.

The Vanderbilt report raises similar questions about Google. There are 15 million websites using Google’s advertising services and 30 million using Google Analytics, which is the platform that allows them to track traffic and other site performance metrics. Additionally, Chrome accounts for 60% of all web browsing with one billion monthly users, according to the report.

An Associated Press report last week showed how the company can record people’s locations even when they turn off location tracking in their settings. Google is still able to record a person’s location through their phones and other devices when a person launches Google Maps or searches for the weather, the AP reported.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misinterpreted how the study describes the potential for collecting data from people surfing the Internet “incognito”. According to the study, Google could potentially link the data collected in “incognito” mode to the user if this user connects to a Google service before leaving the private browsing session. Leaving an “incognito” session before connecting to a Google service would delete all data associated with that session.

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