What Is Incognito Mode and How Private You Really Are?

What Is Incognito Mode and How Private You Really Are

All major web browsers allow users to start a private session, known as the incognito mode or private mode, in which cookies, browsing history, or temporary files are not stored.

While incognito mode can turn out to be quite useful in some circumstances, we'll go over them in this article, it has various limitations and many users seem to overrate the level of privacy it provides.

A study conducted by the University of Chicago found that 40% of the participants believed the incognito mode hides their location, around 20% believed their employer, ISP or the government aren't able to track their activity in private mode, and 27% believed incognito mode enhances the protection against viruses an malware.

We hope this article will shed some light on how the incognito mode actually works, what it cannot do, and for what purposes you should or should not be using it.

Let's see how private you really are in incognito mode!


How do you set your browser to Incognito Mode / Private Mode

All modern web browsers provide you with the ability to browse the internet without storing your browsing history and cookies. If you visit a website in incognito mode and revisit it after you're done with the private session, you'll notice that it is like you've never been there before.

This feature has more names depending on the web browser. Most common are

  • Incognito Mode in Google Chrome
  • Private Browsing in Firefox, Opera Safari
  • InPrivate Browsing in Internet Explorer and Edge

To start a private session:

  • Open the browser of your choice
  • Click the More Options button in the upper right corner
  • Select New incognito window / New Private Window
  • To end the incognito session, simply close the window

How does Incognito Mode work?

Now let's dive a bit into how Incognito More or Private Mode) works so you better understand its perks.

When you're browsing the internet in normal mode, the web browser stores the address of the websites you visit or the URL so you can find them later in the History tab. This makes it easy for you to locate websites in case you want to revisit them.

Web browsers also store some small files on your device, called cookies, that contain information about your online activity such as your browsing history, activities such as logging in, and even the buttons you click on while surfing online. Cookies allow advertisers to track your activity across all websites so they know what ads to show you based on your interests.

While cookies give advertising companies the chance to create a detailed profile of the users' online behavior, they also give users some advantages. Cookies make it possible for websites to remember your logins so you don't have to provide your sign-in credentials every time you go online. Also, without cookies, websites won't be able to remember the items you add to your cart when you're online shopping.

There's also the cache, files downloaded to your computer from the websites you visit (such as images, videos, styling files and so on). Their role is to make the web page load faster the next time you visit the website.

So what's different about incognito mode?

When you're browsing in Incognito Mode, cookies will only be stored as temporary files and they will be deleted when you finish the session (closing the incognito window) along with the cache and the information entered in forms.

You'll notice that you can't find the websites you visited in Incognito Mode in the History tab. Another distinguishable aspect is how the ads behave. There are fewer chances you'll be followed around by personalized ads based on what you've been searching in private mode. For example, if you use an incognito window to look yoga mattresses, it's less likely you'll see yoga-related ads in the future.


Can websites track you in incognito?

While the incognito mode prevents websites from storing cookies and collecting part of the information, it doesn't mean you are completely invisible. Websites are able to see your IP address, hence they will record your visit and where it came from, information usually used for analytics.

Firefox's private mode blocks trackers in private mode by default, preventing advertisers from tracking you across multiple websites. This protects you from browser fingerprinting, data collectors' behavior of tracking you by your IP address, the browser version and OS you're using, and even the graphic card you have.

Until not long ago, websites were also able to detect either you were using incognito mode or not on Google Chrome due to the Filesystem API. When you're in incognito mode, the API is disabled so it prevents you from leaving traces online. Websites check to see if there's any activity coming from the API and, if the API turns up to be unavailable, they draw the conclusion you are in private mode. But this behavior got Google's attention and they fixed the loophole with the Google Chrome 76 which rolled out on 30 July.

Still, researchers are looking for new ways to detect the usage of incognito mode. One example is by looking at how much temporary space it's been allocated and how much of that remains. Websites will probably not start using this method right away, and Google says they are working on fixing additional vulnerabilities regarding the subject.

How can Google track even if you're incognito?

When you open a tab in Incognito Mode, you'll see a message telling you that Google Chrome won't save information such as your browsing history, cookies and site data, ad the information entered in forms. However, it warns you that your activity is still visible to the websites you visit and your ISP.

Indeed, other people that might be using your device won't be able to see your browsing history, but this doesn't mean you can't still be tracked down. This is due to the connection of your Google account while using the Incognito Mode.

If you visit a website, a browser cookie is saved on your local storage. This cookie is temporary and will be removed when you end up your session, buut... If you log into a Google account, such as Google Drive, while the Incognito Mode session is still active, Google will be able to "connect the dots" between the cookies and will link the website you visited to your personal information in your account.

If you don't want Google linking your browsing history while in Incognito Mode with your Google Account, make sure you're not logging in to no account while private browsing.


When is Incognito Mode useful

  • Signing into multiple accounts - On many platforms, such as Gmail and Facebook, you can't log in with two different accounts using normal windows because they keep you logged in across all windows. If you want to get past this, open up an incognito window to log into your second account.
  • Avoiding personalized advertisements - If you're searching for items you don't usually purchase and don't want to be followed by related ads in the future, incognito is a good idea.
  • Researching - Search results are affected by your previous activity. Incognito mode will give you a fresh start for researching on your new project.
  • Using someone else's device - Not only incognito mode will prevent you from leaving traces of your browsing activity while using your friend's computer, but you'll also make sure you won't mess with their accounts if you're going to log into, say, Facebook.
  • Using computers in public places - This will make sure that whoever uses the computer next won't be able to see what you did online. It also guarantees you won't forget to log out from your accounts once you're done.
  • Shopping for gifts - Keeping the gift a surprise from your loved one might be hard when the internet will display related ads and your searches will be shown in the history tab. Incognito mode will make sure no one will see what items you searched for when gift shopping.
  • Watching YouTube videos - Sometimes you might want to watch a tutorial on, let's say, how to feed a goat (because, you know, we get bored from time to time) and you don't want it showing in your YouTube history. I, for example, use incognito when listening to songs I don't usually listen to or when my friends are using my computer to play music I don't necessarily enjoy so it won't mess up my YouTube recommendations.
  • Silly Google searches - They say no question is stupid, but sometimes you get a cringy feeling when the autocomplete field or browser history reminds you of that one time you couldn't remember a word or had to search for something with an obvious answer.
  • If your searches look bad out of context - If your job requires you search for stuff such as "how to create an explosion", "best place to shoot someone for slow death", "how do you dissolve someone in acid", you might not want your friends getting creeped out if they happen to see your browsing history by mistake.
  • Owning a website - If you're a website owner, the incognito mode helps you quickly see how your site is displaying when you are logged out.
  • Getting past paywalls - Lots of publishers allow you to read a certain number of articles before they block your access and require registration. You can get past this and keep reading by using the incognito mode.

What Incognito Mode doesn't do

  • It doesn't hide your IP - Your IP address is still visible to the websites you visit even if you're in incognito mode and they'll record your visit.
  • Doesn't protect you from malware - Even though the incognito mode lessens the chances for your personal information to get stolen, it's not designed as a security tool. You're still prone to download malware and viruses the same you are when in normal browsing.
  • It doesn't hide you from your employer and ISP - If you thought that your employer can't see what you're searching for when in incognito mode, I've got bad news. The activity from incognito windows is accessible to those in charge of the IT department. It doesn't mean your employer or ISP are watching your every move, but it's good to know they can if they want to.

When NOT to rely on Incognito Mode

  • Using public computers for money transactions - Making money transactions from public computers is never safe, and using the incognito mode won't protect you from malware and man-in-the-middle attacks.
  • Public networks and sensitive information - Such as with public computers, the incognito mode won't keep you safe when providing sensitive information over public WiFi networks.

So how can you actually be private on the internet?

While the incognito mode doesn't give you the level of privacy you might look for, there are ways you can become anonymous online.

Tor browser

If you're looking for online privacy, the Tor browser is an alternative to the major web browsers like Chrome and Firefox. It is an open-source software designed to hide the identity of its users. There's no ads tracking and your IP can't be traced back to you due to all the encryption layers.

VPN

By using a VPN, you become almost completely anonymous online. With a VPN, your internet connection is routed through a remote server, located in a country of your choice. This way, it's impossible for websites to see who you are and where you are connecting from.

By using a VPN, your online activity will remain private and third-party entities won't be able to track your moves anymore. Nor can snooping hacker eyes. Also, your ISP can only see you're connected to the VPN server, but it is not able to see what's happening behind it (what you're browsing for or the websites you visit).

Moreover, the VPN creates a secure tunnel, encrypting all the communication between your device and the internet. This will highly boost your online security game. Read how encryption strengthens your online security in the article below.

When choosing a VPN provider, make sure it won't make more harm than good. Firstly, you should avoid free VPN services as most of them track your online activity themselves and sell it to third parties. Secondly, you want to pick a VPN provider that doesn't keep any logs of your online activity so you're guaranteed a private experience.

Besides enhancing your online privacy and security online, using a VPN comes with more extra perks.

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