“Previously, websites could check for an API to determine whether a user was using the Incognito mode, and track accordingly”
Google has announced that it will be releasing a fix to a glitch in the system that was allowing websites to track users that were using Incognito mode to browse the internet. In a recent blog post, Google has noted that the FileSystem API on Chrome, which is disabled to prevent logging of browsing history on a device during the use of Incognito mode, was behind the glitch. With Incognito enabled, sites would check for the API on a user’s device, and if private browsing was turned on, would receive an error message that would give away the usage of Incognito mode, hence somewhat ruining the entire point of the private mode.
According to Google, the release of Chrome 76 on July 30 would fix the issue — the FileSystem API would be modified to resolve the error message prompt, which in turn would prevent sites from automatically discovering users with private browsing enabled. However, Google has noted that this would bring about one particular effect, that on websites that offer a metered paywall. For reference, a metered paywall is one that is found on sites that offer a limited number of free articles every month, before requiring a user to sign in or subscribe.
Many users often use Incognito mode on Chrome or other private searching methods in order to bypass these paywalls, which in turn may hurt a particular website’s subscriber strategy. Google states, “Sites that wish to deter meter circumvention have options such as reducing the number of free articles someone can view before logging in, requiring free registration to view any content, or hardening their paywalls. Other sites offer more generous meters as a way to develop affinity among potential subscribers, recognizing some people will always look for workarounds. We suggest publishers monitor the effect of the FileSystem API change before taking reactive measures since any impact on user behavior may be different than expected and any change in meter strategy will impact all users, not just those using Incognito Mode.“
Google has defended its fixing of the Incognito mode user tracking status by defining scenarios where private browsing is not a mere tool of recreation, but a socio-political necessity. It says, “People choose to browse the web privately for many reasons. Some wish to protect their privacy on shared or borrowed devices, or to exclude certain activities from their browsing histories. In situations such as political oppression or domestic abuse, people may have important safety reasons for concealing their web activity and their use of private browsing features.“
It remains to be seen if there are more glitches that impair the functionality of Incognito mode but have not been disclosed so far. Google has stated that it will be working to patch any such vulnerability going forward, which is apparently in order to protect the sanctity of a user’s privacy demands.