Study: Google Can Identify Users in Incognito Mode

Following the revelation that Google has been surreptitiously collecting location data on its users, which looks like it might end up bringing a class action lawsuit against the company, additional research has revealed that Google’s non-consensual data collection habit might go beyond tracking users’ movements.

A study by the Vanderbilt University has shown that the search giant can collect information on people who use Chrome’s incognito mode, the mode that Google promotes as an anonymized gateway to the web.

The study also showed that Google can retroactively link the anonymous data it collects from private browsing to a user’s personal credentials stored on their Google account. As the report puts it: “While such data is collected with user-anonymous identifiers, Google has the ability to connect this collected information with a user’s personal credentials stored in their Google Account.”

In layman’s terms: when a person visits websites that run ads from Google’s ad network using Incognito mode, Google drops anonymized cookies on the browser. Later, if the same person logs into a Google service, such as Gmail or YouTube, it becomes possible for Google to link that activity to the now identified user.

The study could not, however, confirm whether Google actually does the linking; a Google spokesperson denied it as well. Quoting an article from Ad Age, the spokeswoman said that the company does not “join signed-out activity with your Google account information. We do not associate incognito browsing with accounts you may log into after you’ve exited your Incognito session. And our ads systems have no special knowledge of when Chrome is in incognito mode, or any other browser in a similar mode (ex: Safari Private Browsing, Firefox Private Browsing). We simply set and read cookies as allowed by the browser.”

He then continued to cite malicious intents behind the study, claiming that “this report is commissioned by a professional DC lobbyist group, and written by a witness for Oracle in their ongoing copyright litigation with Google. So, it’s no surprise that it contains wildly misleading information.”