According to a series of internal communications discovered in court, Google employees joked about Chrome’s “Incognito mode” and criticized the company for failing to meet users’ expectations of privacy.
Google is currently the target of a class action lawsuit in California over its misleading claims of privacy.
Court documents obtained by Bloomberg reveal that a Google engineer suggested in 2018 that the Incognito mode icon be changed to “Guy Incognito,” a Simpsons character who looks exactly like Homer Simpson except for his mustache. According to the Google employee, the character “accurately conveys the level of privacy [Incognito mode] provides” compared to Chrome’s standard browsing mode.
In a 2021 email, Google marketing chief Lorraine Twohill urged the implementation of a more secure Incognito mode as a means of gaining users’ trust.
“Make Incognito Mode truly private,” Twohill wrote. “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.”
Studies have shown that the language used by Google contributes to the misconception that “Incognito mode” is truly private.
“We found that browsers’ disclosures fail to correct the majority of the misconceptions we tested,” researchers at the University of Chicago and Leibniz University Hannover wrote in 2019. “These misconceptions included beliefs that private browsing mode would prevent geolocation, advertisements, viruses, and tracking by both the websites visited and the network provider.”