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Chrome will soon stop websites from seeing if you're in Incognito Mode

By Koh Wanzi - on 27 Jul 2019, 8:55am

Chrome will soon stop websites from seeing if you're in Incognito Mode

Note: This article was first published on 19 July 2019.

Google Chrome's Incognito Mode is about to become more effective. You could argue that Incognito Mode hasn't been working as well as it should, since some websites now check whether you're using a private browsing mode and demand that you sign in before you can read anything. One prominent example is the New York Times, which no longer lets you dodge its paywall by using Incognito Mode. 

While it's reasonable that publishers would want to stop people from unfairly circumventing the rules, Google sees this as an inherent flaw in Incognito Mode. The 30 July update of Chrome 76 will close this "unintended loophole" by preventing sites from using the availability of the FileSystem API to check if someone is in Incognito Mode. Chrome's FileSystem API is disabled during private browsing, and it's how websites determine if you're in a private session.

In addition to a paywall, some websites offer a number of free articles before you're required to subscribe. This relies on the site's ability to track the number of free articles someone has viewed, typically using cookies. Incognito Mode is one of the ways people have tried to game the system, which is why websites have responded in turn by checking to see what browsing mode you're in. 

News websites aren't likely to be happy about this move though, but Google is cautioning against impulsive measures: 

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. 

For Google, this is about the larger issue of maintaining privacy rather than just getting around paywalls. After all, people use Incognito Mode for many reasons, such as when they're using a borrowed device or even when dealing with political oppression or an abusive relationship. According to Google, not only should you be able to browse the web privately, your choice to do so should remain private as well. 

The average user will probably be happy with this change, but it remains to be seen how publishers will respond. 

Source: Google