A FEW MONTHS AGO, we reported that Google seemed to be testing plans to stop sites snooping on incognito mode. Now the company has made the plans official, and they will be part of Chrome 76, the latest build of the browser that'll arrive on 30 July.
As with the Chromium commit back in February, the method is the same. Currently sites can check for Incognito Mode because the FileSystem API is disabled. By scanning for the API, sites know if you're using private browsing by the resulting error message. Chrome 76 will modify this behaviour to prevent sites being able to tell the difference between a private and non-private browsing session.
"Chrome's Incognito Mode is based on the principle that you should have the choice to browse the web privately," wrote Google's Barb Palser in a blog post explaining the move. "At the end of July, Chrome will remedy a loophole that has allowed sites to detect people who are browsing in Incognito Mode."
Palser notes that publishers may be none too pleased about this, because the old 'Incognito Mode' trick was often used by web browsers to dodge internet paywalls. Like your friendly neighbourhood crack dealer, news websites often give you the first taste for free before ramping up the price. Using incognito mode is like approaching the same crack dealer in a variety of interesting disguises, getting that sweet free hit indefinitely.
It's a bit of a dick move from the freeloader when sites are struggling to keep the lights on, but it hardly justifies the invasion of privacy, which is very much the point Palser makes in the post. Albeit, in less crude terms.
"People choose to browse the web privately for many reasons," she wrote. "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."
Instead, Palser suggests news sites that want to keep their paywalls golden adopt different methods. Require free registration to read any articles, offer a more generous number of free page views, or simply "develop affinity among potential subscribers" - which is something that sounds easier said than done.
"Our News teams support sites with meter strategies and recognise the goal of reducing meter circumvention, however, any approach based on private browsing detection undermines the principles of Incognito Mode," she concluded. "We remain open to exploring solutions that are consistent with user trust and private browsing principles." µ
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