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Chrome “Forgets” To Delete User Data from Google And YouTube

Last edited: October 21, 2020
Reading time: 3 minutes, 13 seconds

An optional Google Chrome feature giving users control over whether they want the browser to save cookies and site data, fails to delete data from Google and YouTube. This happens even when the auto-delete feature is on. According to Google, it is simply a bug.

Chrome Auto-Delete Feature Exempts Google’s Own Sites

Early in October, programmer Jeff Johnson noted that when you set “delete all your data” in the Chrome browser settings, the software fails to clear all cookies and site data for Google.com and YouTube.com. Coincidentally, Chrome, Google Search and YouTube are all part of Google LCC, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc.

“In Google Chrome’s ‘Cookies and site data’ settings, accessible via the Preferences menu item or directly with chrome://settings/cookies in the address bar, you can enable the setting ‘Clear cookies and site data when you quit Chrome’. However, I’ve discovered that Chrome exempts Google’s own sites, such as Search and YouTube, from this setting”, Jeff Johnson said in a blog post.

Cookies are deleted, but some data remains. This means that you remain identifiable. Therefore, not only Google, but possibly also Google’s advertising partners may still be able to identify you. Even after you explicitly selected settings that are not supposed to allow this to happen. On the other hand, data from non-Google domains are cleared properly. Jeff Johnson tested the same feature with domains such as Twitter.com and Apple.com. On these occasions, the feature did what it was supposed to do. No user data was retained.

“It’s A Bug”, Says Google

After being contacted by the British news site, The Register, Google admitted that they are aware of the problem. However, the company claims it is an unintended programming bug. Google is “investigating” the issue and aims to resolve the problem in the coming days.

It certainly is not the first time Google makes such a mistake. In August, Google was hit with a class action for recording audio without permission. In that case the opt-in setting was “accidentally” switched on. Just a month prior, the American state of Arizona sued Google for tracking location data, even after Android users opted out of this. And in June, Google was sued for tracking users in incognito mode.

These supposed accidents have been going on for a long time. Over a decade ago, with the first versions of Google Street view, Google “mistakenly” collected payload data and personal web activity from domestic Wi-Fi networks while photographing streets. In the following years, the company was hit repeatedly with hefty fines for privacy invasions. But apparently, billions of dollars in fines is not enough.

How To Prevent Your Data from Being Saved

Johnson was able to discover a way to stop Google.com and YouTube.com from saving user data. “In order to prevent YouTube from saving data, you have to add it to ‘Sites that can never use cookies’. Note that adding YouTube to ‘Always clear cookies when windows are closed’ is not sufficient.”

Firefox and all Chromium-based browsers also have a feature to clear site data. Safari, however, does not have this feature. This means you cannot make Safari auto-delete cookies and user data upon quitting the browser. A quick tip to protect your privacy is to use a VPN. A VPN makes your internet activities more anonymous, by guiding your data traffic through an external VPN server with a different IP address than your own.

An alternative for Google Search is a search engine that prioritizes people’s privacy, such as DuckDuckGo. The main difference between DuckDuckGo and Google is that DuckDuckGo doesn’t track your online activity when displaying search results. It also doesn’t use any Google products, doesn’t store your IP address through its service, and blocks advertising trackers as much as possible. Unless you tell it otherwise.

IT communication specialist
Sandra has many years of experience in the IT and tech sector as a communication specialist. She's also been co-director of a company specializing in IT, editorial services and communications project management. For VPNoverview.com she follows relevant cybercrime and online privacy developments.

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