Research by Internet Privacy Company DuckDuckGo is reported to have produced evidence that could show that even in Incognito mode, users of Google Chrome can still be tracked, and searches are still personalised accordingly.

Incognito Mode

Going incognito (private browsing mode) in Google Chrome means launching a separate ‘Incognito’ browser window by going to top right (the 3 stacked vertical dots icon), > New Incognito Window.  According to Google, by using this browser window Chrome won’t save your browsing history, cookies and site data, or information entered in forms, any files you download and bookmarks you create will be kept, but your activity isn’t hidden from websites you visit, your employer or school, or your internet service provider.

The DuckDuckGo Research

In the DuckDuckGo research, several volunteers were given controversial topics, such as gun control, vaccinations and immigration to search for using an Incognito browser window in Google Chrome. The searches were made both logged in to their Google accounts with Incognito Mode activated and logged out.

The Assumption

The assumption that many users may have is that being logged out of Google and using Incognito mode will keep searches totally private.

The Results

The reported results essentially showed that each person got different results.  This could indicate that Google is still able to still personalise searches in Incognito mode, which could mean that Google still has some access to searches which the user may believe are private.

The results may be seen to support the fact that even when signed out, and using Incognito / private browsing mode, websites can use IP addresses and browser fingerprinting to identify people.

Vanderbilt University Research In August

This latest DuckDuckGo research appears to support the findings of previous research from August by Vanderbilt University in Nashville (organised by Digital Content Next). This research found that if users sign into a website while using a private browsing window, the details of that login are still sent to Google, and Google could retroactively identify it from the username and other account data used during the session.  Also, the results of this research suggested that adverts served up by Google’s advertising can be linked to the cookies created both in and out of Incognito mode.

It must be said that Google reportedly described the findings of the Digital Content Next / Vanderbilt University research as misleading.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For Google, as a business that wants to sell and maximise revenue from targeted advertising, which is something that could be significantly improved with refined data and targeting technology, it is conceivable that it would want to collect detailed information from many sources, perhaps including that from Incognito searches.  The results of the DuckDuckGo research and previous research could be interpreted as showing that this is happening, and that Incognito mode may not be as secret as many users had imagined.  For advertisers using Google’s services, it is obviously in their interest that Google can offer highly targeted advertising services, but it is up to advertisers to decide whether they think Incognito mode search data should be a legitimate source of targeting data.

It is also worth noting that, in this case, DuckDuckGo is an Internet privacy company that has its own search engine to promote, which it describes as “the search engine that doesn’t track you”.  See https://duckduckgo.com/.