Most browsers come with a private browsing mode that promises to safeguard your privacy. Chrome calls this feature “Incognito Mode.” But just how private is this feature? How does it work and how does it protect you? In what situations does it not protect you?
There are many misconceptions about Incognito Mode and private browsing that give users the illusion of privacy and even total anonymity. This article busts some myths and sheds more light on the reality that Incognito Mode and private browsing are not so private after all.
Who Coined the Term “Incognito Mode”?
While Apple was the first to introduce the private browsing feature with Safari, it was Google who came up with the term “Incognito Mode” to describe the same feature in Chrome.
In fact, private browsing functions similarly in most modern browsers but is known by different labels. For example, Edge calls it InPrivate browsing, while Firefox and Safari simply call it Private Browsing. Opera calls the feature Private Mode.
For the purposes of this guide, we are using Chrome and Incognito Mode as an example, since the Google browser is the most used in the world.
How to Use Incognito Mode
Launch Google Chrome and press Ctrl + Shift + N in Windows and Cmd + Shift + N in macOS to launch a new Chrome window in Incognito Mode. The feature has a black background with some general guidelines.
You can also right-click on the Chrome app icon in the Taskbar and select the “New Incognito Window” option to open a private browsing mode directly.
If you’re using a different browser, you can rely on the same elements to launch a private window:
- Relevant menu option (usually listed in the “File” menu)
- Designated keyboard shortcut (usually displayed next to the menu item)
- The browser’s Taskbar/Dock icon
Private browsing is also a feature in most modern mobile browsers.
What Does Incognito Mode Do?
When you are surfing the Web in Incognito Mode, the primary job of the browser is to NOT store data locally on your computer. When you close an Incognito Mode window, your browser deletes the following items:
- Browsing history: this includes any websites you visit, whether you have signed in to them or not.
- Cache and cookies: these cover authentication on sites you have logged in to, site-specific preferences and tweaks, parts of web pages saved for faster loading, etc.
- Web searches: any searches you performed on Google, Bing, etc. Your search queries still get logged by the relevant server. Note that privacy-focused search engines like DuckDuckGo do not track your searches at all, but they do record them in your browsing history unless you use private browsing.
- Login information: any usernames or passwords you entered.
- Form data: any information such as name and address that you may have entered in a form.
While using Incognito Mode, you are not signed in to your Google account unless you do so manually. Naturally, none of the activities from the Incognito window browser session get associated with your Google account. This holds true even if you have signed in to Google through a regular window next to the incognito window.
Incognito Mode in Chrome has a new option. At the bottom is a toggle to block third-party sites from using cookies. Cookies are small packets of data that sites use to track you across other sites. Have you ever wondered how you see travel-booking ads on all sites right after searching for flight tickets on a separate site? Cookies.
The moment you close Incognito Mode, your browser will forget the browsing session ever happened. It will delete browsing history, cache, and cookies immediately. There is no way anyone with access to your computer can find out what you were doing.
This gives users a sense of privacy, as their browsing histories remain hidden from the prying eyes of family members or colleagues who have access to their devices. However, it’s important to remember that there are other sets of eyes tracing your online activity, not to mention a loophole or two.
Who Can Track You in Incognito Mode?
Incognito Mode or private browsing protects your browsing history from those who may have physical access to your computer but it is not a foolproof strategy against privacy or anonymity. A few entities can still see what you do online:
- Websites you visit: these can and most probably are still tracking. For example, any item you buy on Amazon will appear in your order list. Likewise, Google records your search history if you log in, unless you have paused Web & App Activity from your My Google Activity dashboard.
- Internet Service Provider: your ISP can track your movements across pages of the Web, thanks to the IP address they assigned to you.
- Network administrators: if you are using your office or school computer, the related authorities can track your browsing activity.
- Hackers and data brokers: private browsing is no deterrent to anyone who is in the business of eavesdropping on digital activity and has the resources to do it.
Another vital point to remember is that your computer saves any files you downloaded and URLs you bookmarked while “incognito.” You should delete them manually if you want to cover your tracks.
When to Use Incognito Mode
Incognito Mode or private browsing is useful if you don’t want others in the house/office/school to know what you are up to. Deleting browsing history manually is a chore, and people often forget to do that leading to embarrassing and awkward scenarios and discussions.
Incognito Mode is also useful when you want to log in to the same service using two separate accounts – for example, Gmail or an online game. Another way to do this is by using two different browsing apps like Chrome and Edge.
Incognito Mode is used to troubleshoot browser-specific problems like extension conflicts, bugs, etc.
Incognito Mode is highly recommended when using public devices or computers that belong to someone else. This way, closing the private session will remove all traces without further steps on your part.
The private browsing mode gives a clean slate every time you launch it, albeit with the caveats discussed above.
Better Alternatives to Incognito Mode
What should you use instead of the Incognito Mode or private browsing if you want to keep your browsing activity private both locally and online: Tor or private browsing mode with a VPN.
VPNs or Virtual Private Networks were designed to encrypt network traffic by masking your ISP-assigned IP address and changing your location to another part of the world. VPN is often used to access geo-restricted content on popular streaming sites on the Internet and bypass geo-located censorship.
Tor also masks your IP address and keeps your online activity private but uses a totally different protocol to do so. While you can use TOR as a regular browser, it is more suitable for accessing the dark web, a network of unindexed websites that are inaccessible the usual way.
Tor is safer but more purpose-driven. It is also much slower, while VPN is general purpose and faster. For details on how these services work and differ, read our comparison of Tor and VPN.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Can I open more than one Incognito window?
Yes. You can open multiple, separate Incognito windows, but they remain part of the same private browsing session. You will need to close all Incognito Mode browser windows to close the session for good.
2. Does Incognito Mode help secure lower prices while booking flights?
Not really. While this belief has persisted over the years, in recent times it has been called out as a myth. Airfare rates are often volatile and vary based on the number of seats available and the demand for them, among other factors.
3. Does Incognito Mode protect my computer from viruses and malware?
No. Your computer can still get infected with malware, viruses, and other forms of online threats. Be careful which websites you visit and files you download while using Incognito Mode.
4. Can you disable the Incognito browsing feature?
In most cases, Incognito browsing is not enabled by default. You need to manually open the browser window in Incognito mode to use private browsing.
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