Incognito Window of Opportunity

Why companies offer private browsing

Who are the hardest people to track on the Internet? I found out in 2009 when I served on an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) committee writing a digital targeting guide for advertisers. 

Someone from ComScore offered research on the topic and shared, “The hardest Internet user to track is a teenage boy. They clear their browser cookies and history every day.” Gee, I wonder why?

Why do people want private browsing windows? 

Apple first introduced private windows for browsing in 2005 by allowing users to create a new browser window that when closed, would not save the cookies and history. It was only after Google popularized Chrome and “incognito windows” in 2009 that private browsing took off.

Studies over the last 10 years by Google research scientist, Elie Bursztein, really help illustrate what’s driving usage. Some key findings from the surveys summarized:

  • 20% of all Internet users use incognito browsing

  • Incognito users have a wide range of use cases

    • 48% prefer not to disclose why they use it

    • 18% shopping

    • 7% looking up people

    • 6% reading news 

    • 1% for everything

  • Avoiding ad tracking doesn’t appear to be major reason for incognito usage

    • 54% are hiding from the website they visit

    • 42% are hiding from people with access to the same computer

    • <1% are hiding from “annoying cookies” (presumably ad tech/marketing cookies)

Based on this survey, these privacy minded users appear to be really concerned about their activity being recognized by the very sites they visit and the people around them -- they’re largely unconcerned by anonymized cookie tracking. These users represent a significant segment of the digital population and therefore a significant market opportunity. 

What’s the opportunity with incognito?

As a result, companies are trying to figure out how to commercialize incognito habits and incorporate the functionality into new products. From the earlier data, the commercial opportunity around incognito modes would appear to be:

  1. Enabling anonymous purchases 

  2. Providing temporary media consumption free of tracking 

Individuals have many legitimate reasons not to give out their personal information when transacting online. They may worry that their purchase history will be sold to data brokers or their personal information will be compromised in data breaches. They may want to pay for content they want to keep private or surprise someone with a gift without a trace in their credit card statement.

One company solving this exact problem is Privacy.com. The company lets you connect a bank account to a virtual card, which then shields any of your actual info from all the other parties in the transaction. Their novel business model is to offer a free service to users and collect a fee from merchants for accepting the credit card payment (just as any credit card issuer does). As a result, Privacy.com customers can get free privacy on the purchases they opt to use it for.

The other window of opportunity for incognito functionality would be for media consumption. Companies such as Brave are attempting to further innovate on incognito for web browsing and monetizing through novel advertising models. However, a lot of media today is not consumed on the browser but in fact still on the TV. 

In particular, what’s most interesting is the emerging frontier of connected television (CTV). Nowadays, 80% of US households have a CTV. The vast majority of these devices use “automated content recognition” (ACR) to screen shot what’s on your TV screen, send it to their servers, and reference against a library of content to see what ad or media you’re viewing at any given time -- even when you aren’t streaming but instead watching live TV. Samsung, Vizio, and Roku have large businesses now built on ads powered by this data from their TVs which is what allows them to offer cheaper and cheaper TVs.

It’s actually impossible to find a consumer TV that doesn’t have such data collection built-in. Privacy watchdogs are now sounding the alarm on the practice. Therein lies the opportunity.

Video consumption data was historically so sensitive that Congress passed a law in 1988 to protect it from leaking without your permission. The Video Privacy Protection Act passed after Robert Bork’s video rental history was published during his Supreme Court nomination without his consent. Now, users have no options to buy an Internet-enabled television without always disclosing their video watching data to a 3rd-party. Most users may be fine with it, but many would value some privacy options.

Adding an incognito mode to connected television would be a real differentiator. Want to watch political news you may not want some Chinese TV manufacturer to store in perpetuity? Or, how about sensitive content you want to keep from other family members? 

If the broader Internet is representative of the CTV market, there’s a real opportunity to make a play for 20% of the market that would use incognito if available. In the US alone, that would be 25MM+ households that would value this functionality. For comparison, AT&T and Comcast each have only about 20MM household subscribers for their TV products. While Apple is a likely first mover on privacy, any of the ad-supported players can offer it without compromising their ad business as Google found with incognito mode. 

There are market opportunities for privacy everywhere, you just need to know who to look for. 

Bonus Information: What can still be tracked in incognito browsing?

Served this month with a lawsuit, Google now faces a $5 billion lawsuit for tracking people in incognito mode. But wait, I thought incognito mode prevents tracking? 

It does prevent the browser itself from retaining information of your activity. Google and anyone in your household won’t know what you did from Chrome itself (which is what Incognito Mode specifically promises), but it doesn’t stop other websites and tools, including Google’s other services, from tracking you. 

It doesn’t stop the websites you visit from recognizing you from your:

  • Login - if you sign into a service, you told them it’s you so they know

  • Purchase - if you make a purchase, you have to give way personally identifiable information, which reveals the shopper

  • “Digital Fingerprint” - Basic signatures include IP address and user agent (browser type, version) while advance signatures include things fonts your browsers has saved and other browser rendering benchmarks. This can be revealed to websites you visit. 

In this case, I believe Google isn’t breaching any specific promises regarding user privacy, but it gets to the larger misconceptions about incognito windows. They provide limited privacy protection, which may be sufficient for most incognito users’ intended anonymous single site visits and activities, but not foolproof and complete protection.