Googlers joke that ‘Incognito Mode’ isn’t ‘really private’

Googlers joke that ‘Incognito Mode’ isn’t ‘really private’

Google employees joked about Chrome’s “Incognito mode” and criticized the company for failing to meet its users’ privacy expectations, according to a series of internal communications revealed in court.

In a 2018 conversation, a Google engineer suggested changing the incognito mode icon to “Guy Incognito,” a Simpsons character known for looking identical to protagonist Homer Simpson except for the mustache, according to court documents reports Bloomberg.

The character’s lazy mask “accurately conveys a level of privacy [Incognito mode] provides” compared to Chrome’s standard search mode, the employee said.

In another recently released email, Google marketing chief Lorraine Twohill suggested strengthening protections for anonymous mode to gain user trust.

“Make incognito truly private,” Twohill wrote in a 2021 email. “We’re limited in how strongly we can market Incognito because it’s not truly private, so it requires really vague, hedging language that’s almost more harmful.”

Google Chrome users often turn to incognito mode when browsing sensitive or dirty content — but critics and some Google employees say the company is not upfront about how much user information is still exposed.

    The Simpsons character "Guy Incognito."
One Google employee compared the incognito mode to the Simpsons character “Guy Incognito.”

More than half of users falsely believe that using incognito mode prevents Google from seeing what they search online, according to a 2018 study from the University of Chicago and Leibniz University of Hanover. In addition, more than 40% falsely think that Incognito prevents websites from estimating their location, according to the study.

“We need to stop calling it Incognito and stop using the Spy Guy icon,” one Google engineer wrote in 2018 with a link to a study about users overestimating Incognito protection.

Another employee suggested changing the Incognito startup screen to say, “You are not protected by Google.”

This proposed change was rejected by Google executives, according to court documents.

google chrome
One employee suggested changing the Incognito startup screen to say, “You are not protected by Google.”
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

Google’s current Incognito launch screen tells users that “other people using this device won’t see your activity,” but that “websites you visit,” “your employer or school,” and “your Internet service provider” can still see their activity . It doesn’t mention that Google can see user activity.

“Privacy controls have long been built into our services, and we encourage our teams to constantly discuss or consider ideas for improving them,” Google spokesman José Castañeda said in a statement. “Incognito mode offers users a private browsing experience and we are clear about how it works and what it does, whereas the plaintiffs in this case intentionally mischaracterized our statements.”

The emails were disclosed as part of an ongoing class action lawsuit against Google in California federal court on behalf of millions of incognito users. If the judge allows the lawsuit to proceed, Google could be on the hook for billions of dollars in damages.

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