This week, we learned that Google Chrome’s Incognito mode was not so incognito after all. The private browsing service offered by the search giant hasn’t been working as promised recently as more and more websites are starting to check for private browsing, thanks to a loophole. 

The loophole, named the FileSystem API, has allowed websites to detect when people are browsing in Incognito Mode. Sites can check for the availability of the API, realise when someone is using a private session, and give that user a different experience. 

However, Google is going to be shutting down this API in the new version of Chrome which the company is rolling out on July 30, which will ensure that Incognito Mode is what it says it is. 

This strategy to remove the loophole is going to impact publishers the most. In the past, publishers have used the API in order to check if users are attempting to get behind metered paywalls – this is when a publisher allows someone to read five or 10 articles for free per month before blocking access without a subscription. Chrome’s Incognito mode was one such way to get around this. 

Now that this API loophole is ending, Google is suggesting that publishers monitor the effect of this change before taking “reactive measures”. In a statement, the company says: “Our News teams support sites with meter strategies and recognize the goal of reducing meter circumvention, however any approach based on private browsing detection undermines the principles of Incognito Mode. 

“We remain open to exploring solutions that are consistent with user trust and private browsing principles.”

Google’s Incognito Mode in Chrome warns users that their activity may still be visible to the websites they visit (Google)

This may be good news for people trying to get around metered paywalls, however, it also falls in the same week that a study found that tracking software made by the likes of Google and Facebook is being deployed on porn websites

The study, carried out by Elena Maris at Microsoft, Timothy Libert at Carnegie Mellon University, and Jennifer Henrichsen at the University of Pennsylvania, studied 22,484 porn sites and found that 93 per cent of them were leaking data to third parties, including when someone invokes incognito mode. 

Trackers made by Google appeared on 74 per cent of the porn sites, with Oracle’s trackers appearing on 24 per cent and Facebook’s on 10 per cent. 

The writers said: “[E]veryone is at risk when such data is accessible without users’ consent, and thus can potentially be leveraged against them. These risks are heightened for vulnerable populations whose porn usage might be classified as non-normative or contrary to their public life.” 

Google and Facebook both denied that the software was collecting information to build advertising profiles of users. 

It’s endemic of the nature of the internet really – a “free” service is not necessarily free at all when you’re paying for it with your data and information about yourself, especially when you don’t realise it. This week, the debate around privacy and the internet exploded following the interest in FaceApp, which has some vague terms and conditions around giving the app access to your camera roll and that the company can use all the images you post without notifying you. 

Twitter users were quick to point out this is often the case with all social media websites and you have to “accept” the T&Cs before using the app to find out what you’ll look like in 30 years’ time. 

However, it points to the lack of digital literacy that the majority of people have when it comes to the internet.  

If you are concerned about being tracked on the internet then apart from installing a VPN – a virtual private network which masks your IP address – you can always switch to using a browser like Mozilla’s Firefox.

With a focus on privacy and security, earlier this year Firefox was updated to include a new default setting of Enhanced Tracking Protection which blocks known third-party tracking cookies. 

As well as the new tracking protection, Firefox also has a Facebook Container, a web extension which helps users to isolate their online activity from Facebook. For instance, if you visit a website which has a Facebook Like or Share button, this allows Facebook to track what you’re doing.

Under the new Firefox feature, this connection to Facebook servers is blocked, making it harder for Facebook to build shadow profiles of non-users and keep your online explorations slightly safer from the internet giants. 

 

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