How incognito are you?

Google Chrome is one of the most used internet browsers around the world. People in Europe, Australia and America use Google Chrome more than any other browser. One of the main reasons so many people choose to browse using Chrome is due to their ‘Incognito’ feature that is available to every user free of charge.

Chrome’s ‘Incognito’ feature is a mode of browsing that allows its users to browse the internet without their user-data being created and stored along the way. While browsing incognito, the users search-history and cookies created during the browsing session is deleted.

For these reasons, many people believe that browsing incognito is safe and secure as nothing they do is stored as user-data meaning they are free from behavioural targeting of ads etc. However, is this the truth?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. In a recent, small study that I carried out, it was obvious to me that although Chrome’s Incognito mode prevents Chrome from tracking and storing your user-data, it doesn’t stop the websites you visit from creating and storing this information.  

This means browsing incognito does not prevent its users from behavioural advertising, which is a technique used by online advertisers to present targeted ads to consumers by collecting information about their browsing history.

I created a new Gmail, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter account for this study. Then, I gave out unique key-words for both Twitter and Facebook that I would search for while browsing incognito.

For Instagram, I searched the web in chrome’s incognito mode on two different clothing sites, ‘Asos’ and ‘Size?’. I found that each time these accounts were logged into, there would never be any indication of search history being saved from the previous session. However, when the social media accounts were then accessed again, it appeared that data had been stored from the previous sessions.

On Facebook, the key-word used while browsing Incognito through Chrome on Facebook was ‘Vegetable’.  On four out of the seven days of which I tracked my sessions, I noted twelve relevant adverts appearing on my newsfeed. Nine of these came from ‘Vegetable Gardening’, a page with over 1 million followers.

Not far below the newest/first post on my refreshed timeline, a small block of space was always held for sponsored posts which would also feature gardening tools, cook-books and vegetable deals, with a link to a variety of different stores.

While using Twitter, the key-word I used while browsing incognito through Chrome was ‘Gambling’. On five out of the seven days of which I tracked my sessions, I noted fifteen relevant adverts appearing on my timeline. All fifteen appeared as ‘sponsored’ posts. Also, on my search page, there is a small section named ‘trends for you’ which contained 23 different posts with some form of gambling content appearing over the duration of this course.

However, Instagram proved to be the most striking of the three applications for tracking my sessions. While browsing incognito through Chrome, I would randomly add selections to my ‘basket’ before immediately removing them and then repeating the same process on another app.

Interestingly, on all seven days, I ran this experiment, the exact product from Asos, or a product similar to what I had placed in my basket appeared on my Instagram feed as a ‘sponsored’ post.

Not far behind was Size. It appeared on my feed with the exact same product on two of the seven days, however, on all seven days I noted a sponsored post appearing on my newly created account from their official page.

On a side-note, during this experiment, the products I viewed online in the clothing stores appeared just as much on my Facebook timeline as my Instagram account.

So, for any users looking to avoid behavioural advertising, unfortunately browsing incognito through Chrome will only get you so far!

Browsing incognito prevents Chrome/Google from creating and storing user-data that can target specific adverts to individuals. While this is all well and good it doesn’t prevent the sites you visit from creating and storing this data.

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