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Google Tracks Users in Incognito Mode, Study Finds

On Tuesday, Google competitor Duck Duck Go released a study showing that Google gives users personalized search results, even when a user goes into "incognito mode." Dr. Robert Epstein, a Ph.D. psychologist who focuses on search engine manipulation, drew the logical conclusion Duck Duck Go refused to state.

"The incognito mode is a lie, that's what they found," Epstein, whose research features prominently in the recent film "The Creepy Line," told PJ Media on Wednesday. "The kind of search results they were getting from people in incognito mode and in normal mode were extremely similar, and of course the results that one person got were extremely different than the results that another person got."

"That's another way of saying that incognito mode is a lie. It's an illusion," the psychologist explained. "They didn't say that, but that's what they found."

While incognito mode "may hide certain kinds of things from certain kinds of websites," letting users get around paywalls of various kinds, it does not hide a user's identity from Google. This means Google still carries out surveillance to know what users want and applies its advertising to leverage the algorithm to their profit, even in "incognito mode."

Epstein admitted that the study had problems. "We have a credibility problem for sure — they didn't tell us how they found their volunteers, for example," he said. He also faulted the study for "just showing you the raw numbers without using statistical methods to see whether these numbers are significant statistically. They didn't do that, for some reason."

However, the psychologist did a deep dive into the results and found them rather credible, so long as the volunteers were truly chosen at random. That said, Epstein did not side with Duck Duck Go over Google.

"I don't recommend Duck Duck Go to people, even though I believe they don't track data and I think that's great," he explained. "I don't recommend it because I don't find the quality of their search results to be very good."

Google may offer a better product, but the company does not deserve users' trust. "I don't think Google is an honest company and I think this study is another indicator of that," Epstein said.

"They routinely favor search results that benefit the company," he explained, noting multiple fines from the European Union, India, and Russia for abusing its dominant position on the Google Play store.

Some people might see the potential for shenanigans in re-ordering the search results, but Epstein warned that manipulation starts even with the underlying algorithm. "It doesn't matter whether someone is deliberately re-ranking. What matters is how they build the algorithm," he explained. "It favors the company's own values, products and services. That's how they build the algorithm."