Incognito mode isn’t as private as you might hope, DuckDuckGo study finds

Google will tailor your search results even if you log out of your account and switch to Incognito mode before performing a search, according to DuckDuckGo.

The privacy-focused browser has shared the results of a recent study, in which it asked 87 people (76 on desktop and 11 on mobile) across the US to carry out an identical series of Google searches (“gun control”, “immigration”, and “vaccinations”, in that order) at the same time (9pm ET on Sunday, June 24, 2018), while logged into their Google account, and again while logged out and in Incognito mode.

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You might expect the Google search results to have been exactly the same for each of the study’s participants when they were logged out and had Incognito mode switched on. Not the case.

Instead, the majority of participants saw results that were unique to them, with results appearing in different orders, and some results appearing for some users and not appearing for others.

“With no filter bubble, one would expect to see very little variation of search result pages − nearly everyone would see the same single set of results. That’s not what we found,” said DuckDuckGo.

“Instead, most people saw results unique to them. We also found about the same variation in private browsing mode and logged out of Google vs. in normal mode.”

It added: “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.”

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These discrepancies could not be explained by “changes in location, time, by being logged in to Google, or by Google testing algorithm changes”, DuckDuckGo said.

It added: “We often hear of confusion that private browsing mode enables anonymity on the web, but this finding demonstrates that Google tailors search results regardless of browsing mode. People should not be lulled into a false sense of security that so-called ‘incognito’ mode makes them anonymous.”

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