Google employees cracked jokes about the Chrome browser’s “Incognito mode” and criticized the company for not living up to its users’ expectations for privacy, according to a series of internal communications unearthed in court.
In one 2018 chat, a Google engineer proposed changing Incognito mode’s icon to “Guy Incognito,” a character from the Simpsons known for looking identical to protagonist Homer Simpson except for a mustache, according to court documents reported by Bloomberg.
The character’s lazy disguise “accurately conveys the level of privacy [Incognito mode] provides ”in comparison to Chrome’s standard browsing mode, the employee said.
In another recently released email, Google marketing chief Lorraine Twohill proposed strengthening Incognito mode’s protections in order to gain user trust.
“Make Incognito Mode truly private,” Twohill wrote in a 2021 email. “We are limited in how strongly we can market Incognito because it’s not truly private, thus requiring really fuzzy, hedging language that is almost more damaging.”
Google Chrome users frequently turn to Incognito mode when searching for sensitive or smutty content – but critics and some of Google’s own employees say the company isn’t upfront about how much of users’ information is still exposed.
More than half of users falsely believe using Incognito mode prevents Google from seeing what they search online, according to a 2018 study from the University of Chicago and the 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 a Spy Guy icon,” one Google engineer wrote in 2018 with a link to the study about users overestimating Incognito’s protections.
Another employee proposed changing Incognito’s launch screen to say: “You are NOT protected from Google.”
That proposed change was rejected by Google executives, according to court documents.
Google’s current Incognito launch screen tells users that “other people who use this device won’t see your activity” but that “websites you visit,” “your employer or school” and “your internet service provider” may still be able to see their activity. It does not mention Google being able to see users’ activity.
“Privacy controls have long been built into our services and we encourage our teams to constantly discuss or consider ideas to improve them,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement. “Incognito mode offers users a private browsing experience, and we’ve been clear about how it works and what it does whereas the plaintiffs in this case have purposely mischaracterized our statements.”
The emails were unearthed as part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit against Google in California federal court on behalf of millions of Incognito mode users. If a judge allows the suit to move forward, Google could be on the hook for billions of dollars in damages.