Just about everyone who uses the internet is aware that their web browser, and the sites they visit, gather information about their online activities. All modern web browsers feature some form of private browsing mode which offers some protection against data collection. In Google Chrome, this is called Incognito Mode, but it seems it may not be as private as you thought.
A $5 billion lawsuit has been filed in San Jose California, alleging that Google's parent company Alphabet has breached privacy laws by using Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager and website plugins to collect data in both the desktop and mobile versions of Chrome in Incognito Mode.
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Incognito Mode does offer some degree of privacy, in that it doesn't store your browsing history locally, and nor does it save cookies or form data. This prevents other people with access to the computer seeing all of your online activities, but it doesn't stop Google and websites from gathering information.
When you switch to Incognito Mode, Chrome does warn that its doesn't offer complete protection. The first screen that is displayed after switching to this mode says that browsing activity might still be visible to "websites you visit, your employer or school, your internet service provider". However, the complaint filed against Alphabet claims that isn't enough.
Protect your privacy
Given the warning that Incognito Mode displays to people when they switch to it – and then money Alphabet will be able to throw behind a legal defence – it seems unlikely that the lawsuit will be successful. But the case does serve as a very useful reminder that even if you take steps to cover your tracks online, it isn't enough just to enable a private browsing mode. Companies may know more about your browsing activities than you hoped.
There are other measures you can take to protect your privacy in the future. One of the most effective measures is to use a VPN (virtual private network), which redirects your web traffic through a remote server using an encrypted connection, making it look as though you're using the web from a different location and keeping your activity anonymous.
VPNs aren't foolproof, and are only as strong as their weakest link, so we've compared over 100 and prepared a full guide to the best VPNs to help you understand the various options and choose which one (if any) is right for you.
If you've ever looked at an item in an online store and then been inundated with ads for the same product on other sites, you'll know how unsettling it is to have your browsing activity tracked and used to target you with tailored advertisements.
Incognito Mode stops sites using tracking cookies to follow you, but that's not the only way advertisers can identify you. Using the same email address for multiple online services means it's possible for your accounts to be linked together,
Using different 'burner' email addresses for different services can stop this happening, while also reducing spam (if one address starts to get bombarded with unwanted messages, you can simply delete it).
Another way to follow you around the web involves 'fingerprinting' - an underhanded method that involves creating a profile of your device's unique hardware and software settings. This can include the apps and fonts installed on the device, any browser plugins, its screen resolution and more, which can then be assigned an identifying number.
It's very tricky to stop this happening, and installing unusual security tools is only likely to make your device more easily identifiable.
Firefox can help provide some protection by blocking third-party requests from companies known to use fingerprinting, but probably the best way to avoid it at the moment is to use Tor as your browser, which effectively makes all users' fingerprints identical. You can be identified as a person using Tor, but nothing more.
Tor has its own drawbacks (speed being one of the most noticeable), so it's up to you to device which measures are most suitable for you.