- People should not be lulled into a false sense of security that so-called "incognito" mode makes them anonymous.
Recently, I was looking up information on breweries in my locality in incognito mode, while being logged off Google. Being a beer aficionado, my history of search included ample “brew” and “brewery” based keywords; with searches being carried out in both in-cognito and “non in-cognito” modes. A few hours later, I needed access to the same websites, and I couldn’t remember which they were. So I used a colleague’s laptop, in in-cognito, for the same search, without any login on Google. Only this time, the results were way off. And this was weird, considering that without a Google log-in, in-cognito was supposed to not personalize the results.
So I decided to do a Google search for this privacy discrepancy. And knew that I was wrong about my privacy assumptions.
According to a new study conducted by Google competitor DuckDuckGo, it does not seem possible to avoid personalization when using Google search, even by logging out of your Google account and using the private browsing “incognito” mode.
The amount of personalization inherent in any one of Google’s many massive software products runs deep, based on everything from your search history to your location to every single search link you might have clicked. And avoiding that personalization seems to have become more difficult over the years.
As DuckDuckGo puts it,
Over the years, there has been considerable discussion of Google’s “filter bubble” problem. Put simply, it’s the manipulation of your search results based on your personal data. In practice this means links are moved up or down or added to your Google search results, necessitating the filtering of other search results altogether. These editorialized results are informed by the personal information Google has on you (like your search, browsing, and purchase history), and puts you in a bubble based on what Google’s algorithms think you’re most likely to click on.
The filter bubble is particularly pernicious when searching for political topics. That’s because undecided and inquisitive voters turn to search engines to conduct basic research on candidates and issues in the critical time when they are forming their opinions on them. If they’re getting information that is swayed to one side because of their personal filter bubbles, then this can have a significant effect on political outcomes in aggregate.
Summary of Findings
Google has claimed to have taken steps to reduce its filter bubble problem, but DuckDuckGo’s latest research reveals a very different story. Based on a study of individuals entering identical search terms at the same time, they found that:
- Most participants saw results unique to them. These discrepancies could not be explained by changes in location, time, by being logged in to Google, or by Google testing algorithm changes to a small subset of users.
- On the first page of search results, Google included links for some participants that it did not include for others, even when logged out and in private browsing mode.
- Results within the news and videos info-boxes also varied significantly. Even though people searched at the same time, people were shown different sources, even after accounting for location.
- Private browsing mode and being logged out of Google offered very little filter bubble protection. These tactics simply do not provide the anonymity most people expect. In fact, it’s simply not possible to use Google search and avoid its filter bubble.