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DuckDuckGo says even in Incognito Mode Google serves personalised search results, Google denies

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DuckDuckGo says even in Incognito Mode Google serves personalised search results, Google denies

Google's rival engine says that even when people are not logged into their Google accounts, they see personalised search results because of the way search algorithms work

When you go into the Incognito Mode in Google Chrome, or use the private mode in Firefox, do you then become anonymous? According to DuckDuckGo, a search engine that competes with Google, the answer to this question is no. The company says that it has conducted a study and has found that even when people log out of their Google account, or the Chrome account, and switch to Incognito Mode, they are served "personalised" search results by Google.

Google has denied the claim and has called the DuckDuckGo study flawed. In a statement Google said, "This study's methodology and conclusions are flawed since they are based on the assumption that any difference in search results are based on personalization. That is simply not true," a Google spokesperson said. "In fact, there are a number of factors that can lead to slight differences, including time and location, which this study doesn't appear to have controlled for effectively."

But the Google's statement does conceded that search results for different people, using different computers, could be different even if people are using Incognito or Private mode in their web browsers.

Earlier, DuckDuckGo in a blog post highlighted how different people see different search results and why that was a problem. "Most participants (in our study) 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," DuckDuckGo explained on its blog. "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."

Now, this may seem like a trivial issue but the problems with different search results on different computers are subtle, and serious. DuckDuckGo explains why this is an issue. Different search results for different users, which take into account the people's browsing behaviour, location or other factors like the kind of computer they are using, tend to result in information bubble. Users tend to see same kind of information and over a period of time this may not be good for them.

"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. In fact, it's simply not possible to use Google search and avoid its filter bubble," explained DuckDuckGo.

Google, on its part, has tried to explain why different people may see different search results even when they are not logged into Google account or even when Google is not influencing search results on the basis of a person's web browsing history. This is something the company did with a lengthy Twitter thread. "Over the years, a myth has developed that Google Search personalizes so much that for the same query, different people might get significantly different results from each other. This isn't the case. Results can differ, but usually for non-personalized reasons," the company tweeted.

But apart from the filter bubble issue, which may end up giving information to a user that confirms his or her biases, there is another problem here. Even Google is acknowledging that due to a number of factors no two search queries are going to fetch the same results. This adds to ambiguity to the use of technology, and it takes away control from users. In fact, chances are that Google's algorithms are no so complex that even if the company wants it can't control the search results for different computers without radically altering its search algorithms.

Technology companies like Facebook and Google tracks internet users in number of ways, but the most direct method is by collecting the information when they are logged into their respective accounts and are surfing the web. But even when users are not logged in, or are using Incognito Mode, companies can track them using some of very unique digital fingerprints -- IP address, location, time, machine model and hardware configuration, browser plug-ins, screen resolution etc - - that computers and web browsers leave in web servers.

This is the reason why earlier in June when Apple announced new macOS Mojave, it introduced new privacy protection at the OS level. Apple at that time had said that with Mojave and new safari browser it will start hiding some of core hardware details of its users from websites like Google and Facebook so that they cannot easily identify users.