Google’s private browsing doesn’t keep your searches anonym…


New research has found that it doesn’t matter what you do to burst out of Google’s search filter bubble: you can log out of Google, then enter private browsing mode, but those precautions won’t render your search anonymous. Google’s search engine will still tailor results to the personal information the company has on you, including search, browsing and purchase history.

Granted, the research comes from search competitor DuckDuckGo, which draws search results from third-party sites such as Bing, Yahoo and Yandex without tracking you. The research is still eye-opening, though, in spite of DuckDuckGo being a competitor.

In order to test whether a search engine is really profiling you or not, it helps to keep in mind that a search engine that doesn’t profile users should show all users who search at the same time the same search results for a given search term, without tweaking the results based on things like an individual’s previous search history.

Google has claimed to have taken steps to reduce the filter bubble problem – a problem that’s been implicated in influencing US presidential election outcomes both in 2016 and in the 2012 Romney-Obama bout. The thinking is that profiling search users and feeding them tailored search results essentially surrounds them with a walled garden of information they already agree with, thereby silencing new information or differing opinions.

But in spite of Google’s steps to pop the bubble, it’s still showing users nonidentical search results even when they’re in private browsing mode, signed out of Google services.

DuckDuckGo studied a group of individuals who entered identical search terms at the same time. What it found:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Results within the news and videos infoboxes also varied significantly. Even though people searched at the same time, people were shown different sources, even after accounting for location.
  4. 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.