Let’s admit it: There are some things you just don’t want other people to know you Googled.
Whether it’s an adult topic, a sensitive medical condition, or simply something innocent like gift ideas for a surprise birthday party, we like knowing that some of our searches are “off the record.”
Almost anyone who has ever used the Google Chrome browser is familiar with “Incognito” mode. Its purpose is supposedly to browse the web without leaving a history of sites visited or terms searched … but is Google keeping its promises to users?
“Chrome won’t save the following information: Your browsing history, cookies and site data, information entered in forms,” the Chrome Incognito home screen assures us.
Google’s own help documents go into more detail. “Chrome doesn’t save your browsing history or information entered in forms. Cookies and site data are remembered while you’re browsing, but deleted when you close Incognito mode.”
To the casual reader, it certainly seems that Google is pledging not to retain the sites you visit or searches you make while in Incognito mode.
Shockingly, however, USA Today has reported that this may not actually be true.
Technology columnist Jefferson Graham revealed that when he requested an archive of his data from Google, he was stunned to see that Incognito searches were included in their extensive records.
Graham used a tool available from Google that allows users to download and review the piles of information that the tech giant retains about each person.
“Mine arrived in a few hours, delivered to Gmail. After unzipping the files, most are categorized in clear-to-read English and go way back — mine to 2009,” the journalist explained.
If you’ve done anything on Chrome or the Google-owned Android operating system, there’s a good chance it’s in the archive.
“The list included everything: a voice request on Google Home to solve 6*12.50, I listened to Prince on Google Play last week, watched a James Corden clip on YouTube and every Google search, made both publicly and anonymously in Incognito mode,” he explained. Emphasis added.
“That last bit of history was a surprise,” the USA Today reporter admitted.
“Google tells users that searching in Incognito mode means ‘Chrome doesn’t save your browsing history’ and ‘basic browsing history information like URLs, cached page text, or IP addresses of pages linked from the websites you visit,'” he continued. “We reached out to Google for comment, but have yet to hear back.”
How does “Incognito doesn’t save your browsing history” turn into “here’s every Incognito search you’ve ever made?” It’s a very good question, and there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory answer.
One possibility is that the tech giant is pulling a bit of a bait-and-switch. Your searches may be transmitted to Google’s servers and archived there with your name attached.
Chrome, the actual program running on your computer, may, in fact, clear your searches locally when you close the Incognito window, but everything you’ve ever looked for — yes, even those late-night searches with Incognito — are kept in “Big G’s” massive and increasingly creepy database.
In other words, Chrome might not be saving your browsing history, but Google sure is. That loophole may give the tech company an “out,” but it’s unclear and perhaps even deceptive.
Amid the recent Facebook scandals and Mark Zuckerberg’s earnest testimony in front of Congress, many Americans are becoming increasingly aware of just how much privacy they’ve given up for the sake of technological convenience.
Whether it’s even possible to put the privacy genie back in its bottle remains to be seen, but taking a look at what major corporations like Google have in your file is an eye-opening experience.
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