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Stanford student explains why Google Incognito mode doesn't really hide your searches

“In the least shocking reveal of all time, it was proven that it’s really not that private.”

A man using his laptop in Incognito mode.

If you were comfortable thinking there would be no evidence of your online activity while in Google’s Incognito mode, think again. According to a class-action lawsuit filed by Florida resident William Byatt and California residents Chasom Brown and Maria Nguyen, Google has been sharing your searches and selling your data, even while using Incognito mode.

On December 30, NPR reported that Google agreed to settle the $5 billion lawsuit that claims it misled users into believing that their activities weren’t being tracked while in Incognito mode.

Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers pointed out that Google never told its users it continued to collect data even when people were browsing in Incognito mode.


"Google’s motion hinges on the idea that plaintiffs consented to Google collecting their data while they were browsing in private mode,” Rogers ruled. “Because Google never explicitly told users that it does so, the Court cannot find as a matter of law that users explicitly consented to the at-issue data collection."

The settlement terms have not been made public and still need to be approved by a federal judge. The plaintiffs say they will send a final settlement agreement to a judge by February 24.

News of the settlement went viral on TikTok on January 18 thanks to a post by Thunder Keck (@thunder_keck) that has received over 435,000 views. According to his TikTok profile, he’s a Stanford football player who’s also an expert in the Dark Web.

@thunder_keck

google is always watching

“In the least shocking reveal of all time, it was proven that [Ingognito mode is] not that private. They’re still tracking you and selling your data,” Thender Keck revealed. “Incognito mode and private browsing on Safari is basically the same as clearing your history,” he added.

"And most importantly, anyone on your network with a tool like Wireshark can still see everything you're doing, Even if you’re using a VPN,” he warned, “it will still deliver your packets and use fingerprinting to figure out what sites you’re visiting. And that’s getting way easier with AI.”

Wireshark is a network protocol analyzer that allows users to see everything happening on a network at a “microscopic level.”

The post received many comments from people who fear their histories will be made public.

"I’m cooked," schizophrenic idiot wrote. "It’s so over for me," Aton agreed. “I hope my mom doesn't find out," elcee4 added.

After Google reached the settlement agreement, it doesn’t appear the company has changed its policies. Instead, it has changed the warning users receive in Incognito mode.

According to The Verge, here’s the new warning: “Others who use this device won’t see your activity, so you can browse more privately. This won’t change how data is collected by websites you visit and the services they use, including Google. Downloads, bookmarks and reading list items will be saved. Learn more.”

The previous message reads: "Now you can browse privately, and other people who use this device won’t see your activity. However, downloads, bookmarks and reading list items will be saved. Learn more."

On Dec. 30, the IRS announced it was revamping a long-standing agreement with the online tax preparation industry in which companies offer free filing to people with incomes below certain levels, a category that includes 70% of filers.

The change in what's known as the Free File program came in the wake of multiple ProPublica articles that revealed how the companies in the program steered customers eligible for free filing to their paid offerings. Under the updated agreement, the companies are now prohibited from hiding their Free File webpages from Google searches, and the IRS was allowed to create its own online tax-filing system.


So far, it seems, the companies are abiding by their promise to make their Free File webpages visible in online searches. But the updated agreement appears to have a loophole: It doesn't apply to advertising. Nothing in it, the agreement states, "limits or changes the rights" of participating companies to advertise "as if they were not participating in the Free File program."

As a result, companies like Intuit, whose TurboTax is the top tax prep software, continue to confuse some customers who seek free tax prep into paying. Today, Google searches for "free tax filing" and other similar phrases still yield ads for a plethora of products such as TurboTax's "Free Edition" (its ads promise "100% Free Tax Filing"), which lead customers to pay fees if they don't have simple returns.

Mike Mozart / Flickr

TurboTax's version of Free File — the one that doesn't charge customers anything — typically won't appear until the second page of search results.

Intuit increased its monthly online ad spending noticeably between January 2019 and January 2020, according to search analytics firm Ahrefs. Intuit places its ads strategically in searches for "IRS" and "free file," among thousands of related search terms.

(Ahrefs makes estimates based on search data; it doesn't purport to capture exact numbers but rather to track the general magnitude and direction of the spending.) Ahrefs and a second search analysis firm, SEMRush, say TurboTax spends more on digital ads than competitors TaxAct, TaxSlayer and H&R Block combined.

Intuit does not advertise its Free File offering on Google, according to SEMRush and Ahrefs. (Tax Time Allies, which is funded by Intuit, does advertise Free File, according to Intuit. SEMRush and Ahrefs estimate that spending is a fraction of what Intuit spends on Free Edition.)

Outside of the advertising realm, TurboTax still appears to favor products like Free Edition. So-called organic links to Free Edition appear ahead of links to Free File in many searches, data from SEMRush and Ahrefs shows. TurboTax accomplishes that, search engine optimization expert Rhea Drysdale said, in part by inserting keywords — the word "free" is used 54 times on Free Edition's webpage. By comparison, Drysdale said, the TurboTax Free File landing page uses "free" 19 times.

Google's algorithms are both secret and complicated, so SEO experts can't say for certain why one link appears above another one. But there are many common SEO tactics that TurboTax can use to ensure its Free Edition appears above the Free File program.

"My belief is that you can control a lot [with SEO] within reason," Drysdale said. "Using technical innovations in Google and understanding user behavior, you can see tremendous results from it." Intuit, she added, doesn't "have to do a lot" because it's "such a large player in the field."

via Pro Publica

An Intuit spokesman, Rick Heineman, said the SEO and advertising estimates cited in this article "are not nearly accurate." He added, "Rather than trying to hide Free File as ProPublica has inaccurately claimed, last year TurboTax did more than anyone else to promote it. … Intuit has for two decades provided free tax preparation and has helped taxpayers file more completely free tax returns than all other tax prep software companies combined, including 13 million totally free returns last year alone."

Google's policy bars misrepresentation in ads. It states that advertisers must "clearly and conspicuously disclose the ... full expense that a user will bear." According to a Google spokesperson, TurboTax's ads do not violate its terms. The spokesperson said Google requires advertisers to disclose "criteria for any free offers." TurboTax discloses that Free Edition applies only to "simple tax returns" on its landing page.

Whether it's a question of advertising or SEO, the result seems to be that some low-income taxpayers who qualify to file for free are still paying for TurboTax this tax season — even after the change in the agreement with the IRS. Lyle Hill, a warehouse worker in Georgia with an adjusted gross income of $10,390 last year, said he was looking to file his taxes for free, but he got confused and ended up paying $120 to file his federal and state taxes through Free Edition.

Intuit, he added, declined to refund his fees when he subsequently told the company he'd been steered into a paid option when he'd wanted the free one. Alvyn Velazquez, a student in New York, recounted a similar journey that ended with him paying $120 after going through the Free Edition portal.

Max Miller, an Arkansan who was self-employed in 2019, also encountered difficulties. Miller said he had sought free filing for four years in a row and each time ended up paying TurboTax for Free Edition. After reading ProPublica's reporting last year, Miller intentionally searched for the Free File program in January — and he still struggled to find it online. "Even when I was looking for Free File," he said, "it still wasn't coming up."

Alongside its online ad campaign, Intuit also has three active, national television advertisements for Free Edition that have aired more than 12,000 times since premiering in January 2019, according to metrics from iSpot.tv, a company that tracks TV advertisements. And on Facebook and Instagram, there are more than 500 active advertisements that mention the word "free" and redirect users to download the TurboTax app — in which users cannot access Free File — and to the Free Edition landing page.

An audit released on Feb. 3 by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that last year, 14 million people who qualified for Free File instead paid what ProPublica estimated could amount to about $1 billion in tax prep services to various companies.

The article was originally published by Pro Publica and was written by Will Young.

“Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?”

Of all the people to field that question, it's somewhat sobering that Susan Wojcicki — the CEO of YouTube — would be asked it by her own daughter.

"As my child asked me the question I’d long sought to overcome in my own life, I thought about how tragic it was that this unfounded bias was now being exposed to a new generation," Wojcicki wrote in a powerful and deeply personal new essay published by Fortune.

Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for Vanity Fair.


Her daughter's question was prompted by a leaked internal memo written by an engineer at Google, which owns YouTube.

In case you literally missed the memo: James Damore, a former senior software engineer in Google’s search division, sent out a jaw-droppingly offensive analysis to his co-workers falsely asserting that there are biological explanations that justify a lack of female representation in tech fields.

With the memo, Damore was intending to curb bias among his colleagues that, in his opinion, unfairly attributed too much of the gender gap in tech to social factors (like sexism and implicit bias). The problem is, the gap exists solely because of those types of factors — not biological ones. His memo, which sparked frustrations and anger among Google employees, eventually leaked to the press. Damore was fired on Monday.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Not only was the memo painfully inaccurate in explaining how biological differences between men and women supposedly justify the gender gap in tech, it also did very little in pointing out the systemic barriers and implicit biases that actually prevent women from excelling in the industry.

The memo was especially appalling to women like Wojcicki, who's spent much of her adult life overcoming very real(aka, absolutely not biologically based) barriers and biases against women in tech.

As Wojcicki wrote in her essay (emphasis added):

"I’ve had my abilities and commitment to my job questioned. I’ve been left out of key industry events and social gatherings. I’ve had meetings with external leaders where they primarily addressed the more junior male colleagues. I’ve had my comments frequently interrupted and my ideas ignored until they were rephrased by men. No matter how often this all happened, it still hurt."

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

In her essay, Wojcicki also spelled out why Damore's firing isn't a matter of free speech, as some have argued. "While people may have a right to express their beliefs in public, that does not mean companies cannot take action when women are subjected to comments that perpetuate negative stereotypes about them based on their gender," Wojcicki noted, calling discrimination of all kinds against all groups of people inexcusable.

"What if we replaced the word 'women' in the memo with another group?" she wrote. "What if the memo said that biological differences amongst Black, Hispanic, or LGBTQ employees explained their underrepresentation in tech and leadership roles? ... I don’t ask this to compare one group to another, but rather to point out that the language of discrimination can take many different forms and none are acceptable or productive."

For Wojcicki, this issue isn't just personal to her — it's one that's shaping how her own child sees herself and her future.

So it makes sense that the YouTube CEO gave her daughter an answer that cuts straight to the truth.

"Do differences in biology explain the tech gender gap?"

"No," Wojcicki told her daughter. "It’s not true."

Prominent members of the business community looking to put people before profits spoke out against President Trump's immigration order this weekend — an unexpected but welcome part of the backlash to the ban.

On Jan. 30, 2017, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times appeared on CNBC to discuss the financial risks of businesses that face off against the president and how those risks leave many CEOs loathe to speak out against any individual policy, even if they oppose it on personal and professional levels.

"They are scared out of their minds about being attacked [by Trump] ... and what that's going to do for their business," she explained.


Those CEOs aren't wrong to worry, either. Since being elected, Trump has continually taken aim at companies that have criticized him, using his Twitter account to tank their stock prices.

In December 2016, after Boeing's CEO made an argument in favor of trade agreements, Trump fired off a series of tweets about canceling plans to use the company for the new Air Force One series of planes. As a result, the company's stock price fell by 1% before recovering. Trump's tweet about Boeing and a $4 billion contract was a bit of an exaggeration; the company has a $170 million contract, which a tweet cannot cancel.

Knowing that a Trump-fueled attack on their companies — and the value of their shares — could be waiting just around the corner, here are 15 companies and CEOs who took a stand against the immigration ban this weekend:

1. Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky offered free housing to people affected by the travel ban.

On a statement posted to its website, the company also offered a way for Airbnb hosts to volunteer help.

2. Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston called Trump's order "un-American."

3. Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson spoke out against the order and urged others to contact legislators and support organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.

4. Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted an essay to his profile sharing the story of his and his wife Priscilla's immigrant and refugee origins.

"We should also keep our doors open to refugees and those who need help," Zuckerberg wrote. "That's who we are. Had we turned away refugees a few decades ago, Priscilla's family wouldn't be here today."

My great grandparents came from Germany, Austria and Poland. Priscilla's parents were refugees from China and Vietnam....

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Friday, January 27, 2017

5. Google created a crisis fund to support immigrant-rights organizations.

According to a statement provided to USA Today, Google has created a $4 million crisis fund for four immigrant-rights organizations: the American Civil Liberties Union, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, International Rescue Committee, and UNHCR.

"We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that could create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S.," said the company. "We'll continue to make our views on these issues known to leaders in Washington and elsewhere."

Google headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images.

6. Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta donated $100,000 to the ACLU — and didn't stop there.

In a short Twitter thread on Sunday evening, Instacart founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta announced a $100,000 donation to the ACLU, the creation of "office hours" with immigration attorneys for employees and their families, and a pledge to expedite H-1B visas and green cards for employees in need.

7. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner used Trump's ban as an opportunity to boost and expand the company's Welcome Talent program for refugees in the U.S.

8. In a blog post, ride-hailing app Lyft's co-founders John Zimmer and Logan Green committed to a $1 million donation to the ACLU over the next four years.

"We created Lyft to be a model for the type of community we want our world to be: diverse, inclusive, and safe. This weekend, Trump closed the country's borders to refugees, immigrants, and even documented residents from around the world based on their country of origin. Banning people of a particular faith or creed, race or identity, sexuality or ethnicity, from entering the U.S. is antithetical to both Lyft's and our nation's core values. We stand firmly against these actions, and will not be silent on issues that threaten the values of our community. We know this directly impacts many of our community members, their families, and friends. We stand with you, and are donating $1,000,000 over the next four years to the ACLU to defend our constitution. We ask that you continue to be there for each other - and together, continue proving the power of community."

A Lyft driver in San Francisco. Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Lyft.

9. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings didn't mince words on his Facebook page, calling Trump's executive order "so un-American it pains us all."

Trump's actions are hurting Netflix employees around the world, and are so un-American it pains us all. Worse, these...

Posted by Reed Hastings on Saturday, January 28, 2017

10. Nike's president and CEO took a stand against the ban in an email to employees.

Looking to Olympian Mo Farah's statement on how Trump's ban would prevent the four-time gold medalist from returning to his home in the U.S., Nike President and CEO Mark Parker emailed employees, urging them to "[stand] together against bigotry and any form of discrimination."

11. Postmates founder and CEO Bastian Lehmann — who also happens to be an immigrant — wrote a blog post skewering the Trump administration, saying, "I no longer believe it to be reasonable to remain silent."

He also pledged to match employee donations to the ACLU and International Refugee Assistance Project.

"The trade-off of these policies is obvious. In exchange for the guise of safety rooted in fear of those with different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds we will be abandoning the diverse melting pot of culture and ideas that has made the United States prosper. That is the bedrock that creative growing companies like Postmates have been built upon. Ignoring the dynamics of this diversity, which is distinctly American and has set our country apart from the rest the world throughout history is short sighted and damaging."

Bastian Lehmann at TechCrunch Disrupt London in 2015. Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images for TechCrunch.

12. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff shared some poignant scripture and a well-known (if sadly ignored) piece of poetry, using the hashtag #noban.

13. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield delivered an impassioned argument against the administration's actions and shared his family's own story of immigration.

"My grandfather came from Poland between the wars, at 17, sponsored by an elder sister," he wrote.

"Two more siblings made it. Everyone else died. Their parents were shot in the streets and thrown in a mass grave (we believe). Their other siblings died in the camps. Every cousin (and really, everyone they knew) was killed. That whole branch of the family tree snuffed out. And now we want to do this to others. It's bewildering and confusing and terrifying."

14. In a letter to employees, Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz unveiled a four-part rebuke to Trump's actions toward immigrants and refugees.

The plan includes supporting DACA, hiring refugees, building bridges with Mexico instead of walls, and committing to support Starbucks employees if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.

Schultz also pledged to hire 10,000 refugees in 75 countries over the next five years.

15. Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey called the executive order "upsetting."

The day the order was signed, Dorsey shared a mini-documentary about Yassin Terou, a Syrian refugee living in the U.S.

Long before his political aspirations took flight, Trump was a CEO, which makes the response from the business community even more powerful.

If he refuses to listen to the American people and fellow politicians, perhaps it'll be the judgment of the country's corporate leaders that sways Trump's opinion one way or another.

CEOs and business leaders who are willing to take a stand against some of Trump's harmful policies may be one of the more effective ways of communicating with him.