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There is a lawsuit claiming Google tracks users in private browsing mode. How exactly is Google achieving this?

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  • This article explains the issue pretty well: businessinsider.com/… In Chrome's incognito windows, scripts like Google Analytics still work and send your browsing behavior to Google. Some users apparently are complaining (and suing Google) because that was unexpected. The warning says your activity might still be visible to "websites you visit", but that actually includes every third party service loaded by the site (for example Google Analytics)
    – reed
    Jul 22 '20 at 16:13
  • I just checked, apparently Firefox blocks Google Analytics while in private mode, so not every private or incognito mode works the same. Chrome's incognito mode seems to be what some users are complaining about (and want to sue Google for).
    – reed
    Jul 22 '20 at 18:03
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There is a common misunderstanding of what "Private Browsing" or "Incognito Mode" actually does.

There is no anonymity or tracking protection provided. What these modes do is block persistence of information across sessions, preventing permanent storage of cookies or history after the browser has been closed.

Within a given browser session, meaning from start to stop, Incognito and similar works exactly the same (caveat) as a normal browsing session. The difference is that local storage is blocked so all of the session information is gone upon browser termination.

Some browsers (Firefox) proactively block writing to local storage in private mode. Some browsers (IE as of 2 years ago) wrote to local storage but cleared local storage upon start up.

Caveat:

Because protected browsing may not allow HTML5 local storage, many sites now complain about protected browsing. Some sites, like Netflix, will not work at all without the ability to write local storage.

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  • I wanted to write a similar answer, but after investigating a bit more I realized that today private/incognito modes have implemented more advanced features. The complaint seems to be that Chrome's incognito mode does not block Google Analytics. However, Firefox actually does block it in its private mode (along with some other trackers).
    – reed
    Jul 22 '20 at 18:01
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Google is able to track users as they browse from site to site - even if the user is using Google Chrome in incognito mode - if the sites that the user visits have Google's services installed, such as Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager, etc.

This is similar to how Facebook is able to track users as the move from site to site - even if the user is using a browser in incognito mode (or private mode), and even if the user is not a Facebook user - if the sites have the Facebook 'Like Button' installed. See How does Facebook track your browsing without third party cookies? for more information.

Also, see https://threatpost.com/google-faces-privacy-lawsuit-over-tracking-users-in-incognito-mode/156269/, which explains:

The lawsuit, filed in the federal court in San Jose, California, alleges that Google compiles user data through Google Analytics, Google Ad Manager and other applications and website plug-ins, including smartphone apps, regardless of whether users click on Google-supported ads, according to a report in Reuters.

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