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Google to delete private browsing data - here's what ‘Incognito’ actually does

ANKARA, TURKIYE - DECEMBER 29: In this photo illustration, logo of 'Google Chrome Incognito Mode' is displayed on computer screen in Ankara, Turkiye on December 29, 2023. (Photo by Yasin Baturhan Ergin/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Incognito mode isn't quite as private as some people think. (Anadolu via Getty Images)

Google is to delete billions of records it collected on users using Incognito mode in its Chrome browser.

The move has been announced to settle an estimated $5bn (£4bn) class action lawsuit claiming it secretly tracked the internet use of people who thought they were browsing privately. While Chrome’s Incognito mode switches off data collection, other Google advertising tools still collected it, the lawsuit alleged.

The plaintiffs claim this turned Google into an "unaccountable trove of information" by letting it learn about their friends, favourite foods, hobbies, shopping habits and the "most intimate and potentially embarrassing things" they hunt for online.

Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda said in a statement: “We are pleased to settle this lawsuit, which we always believed was meritless. We never associate data with users when they use incognito mode. We are happy to delete old technical data that was never associated with an individual and was never used for any form of personalization.”

The settlement includes no payment: instead individual users will be able to file their own complaints in US state courts, with around 50 believed to have already done so.

The case has highlighted the fact that Incognito or Private modes in browsers are not quite as 'private' as many people believe.

What will actually change?

The plaintiffs in the case say that the settlement will force the tech giant to be more honest about the data it collects.

Google is to delete all incognito data collected up to December 2023, at which point Google updated its agreements. This includes "billions of event-level data records that reflect class members’ private browsing activities".

This data will be deleted for all users, and users don't need to do anything. In future, Google will also anonymise stored private browsing data by partially redacting IP addresses among other measures.

Seattle, USA - Aug 19, 2019: The new Google building in the south lake union area at twilight.
Google's headquarters in Seattle (Getty)

The message which appears at the start of every Incognito session will also change to explain that data is collected.

Google must also allow Incognito mode users to block third-party cookies for the next five years (cookies can be used to help track users online).

The court filing says: “This settlement is an historic step in requiring dominant technology companies to be honest in their representations to users about how the companies collect and employ user data, and to delete and remediate data collected.”

So what does Incognito mode actually do?

Contrary to what many people believe, Incognito mode doesn’t make you fully anonymous: it just means that browsing activity isn’t stored on that machine. So your history, cookies, site data and usernames and passwords won’t be saved to that particular device.

Browser extensions are also turned off by default, so those won’t store data on you either (although you can manually re-enable these). This means that other people who use your machine won’t be able to see what sites you visited, or see stored logins.

By default, you’re also signed out of other accounts when in Incognito, but if you sign into a Gmail account (for example) that account will save your browsing data.

If you create an account on or log in to a website, Incognito mode won't keep you private.

But there are plenty of people who can see exactly what you do in Incognito mode, including your internet service provider (if browsing from home) or your employer (if browsing from work), and the government.

Other websites can also see what you are doing, with your internet address (IP address) fully visible to the sites you visit.

Websites can also still detect where you are, based on your internet address, which sites can use to track you.

Software such as parental monitoring software also still monitors your browsing, even if you are in incognito mode.

Basically, while browsing Incognito makes you 'private' on the particular machine you're using, you can still be very visible online.

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