Am I Really Incognito When I’m in Incognito Mode?
Now, more than ever before, the internet can feel like an unsettling place to be. After all, it’s no secret how every single movement we make online seems to be tracked.
With online privacy now a key concern, increasing numbers of us are looking for ways to protect ourselves while going about our daily lives online.
One of the first – and often sole – lines of defense web surfers use to safeguard their privacy is by browsing in incognito mode. But while the word “incognito” certainly sounds reassuring, just how private is incognito browsing, really?
The answer? Not very.
We’ll dive into the reason why in just a bit. But before we do, let’s have a refresher on what exactly incognito mode is, and why there are still some good reasons to keep using it.
What is incognito mode?
Incognito mode, as it’s called by Google Chrome, goes by a few different names – it’s known as private browsing to all you Firefox users and as in-private browsing in Microsoft Edge.
Whatever your browser calls it, these all boil down to the same function. This is to help you obscure your online activity from anyone else who browses on your computer at a later date.
But guys, here’s the rub – this does not equate to making you invisible online. (For a real-life version of an online invisibility cloak, stay tuned until the end of this post.)
In essence, incognito mode gives you privacy within your own device. While it won’t allow evidence of your browsing history to linger on your computer for any would-be snoops to uncover, this history can always be – and usually is – logged somewhere else outside your device.
What browsers offer incognito mode?
We’re talking all of the usual suspects, including:
- Google Chrome
- Mozilla Firefox
- Apple Safari
- Microsoft Edge
These all offer similar functionalities, i.e. they don’t save your browsing history, cookies, site data or any info you enter on an online form. They do, however, keep hold of any files you download and any website links you bookmark over the course of your incognito browsing session.
Firefox comes with a little something extra other web browsers don’t – it prohibits third-party websites from tracking your online activity.
Check out our earlier article on how to browse privately for more on activating incognito mode on any of the browsers listed above.
How do I activate incognito mode?
While incognito mode offers a range of benefits, the truth is that it doesn’t offer a truly “incognito” (read: private) experience. Here’s why.
What your web browser’s incognito mode actually does
When you begin an incognito browsing session, what you’re doing is preventing information like your browsing history, cookies, form data, passwords or temporary files from being stored on your own device once your session is finished.
It’s important to know incognito mode can’t do the same thing with the servers or websites you access. (We’ll go over in a little more detail what incognito mode doesn’t do in just a minute.)
That said, incognito mode does have its uses. Let’s dig a little deeper into some instances where it can come in handy:
1. Other people who use your device won’t be able to see your browsing activity
Incognito mode is great for protecting your online privacy from anyone you share your computer with. After you’re done your private browsing session, all the temporary browsing data you’ve accrued is erased.
Incognito mode comes with another side benefit for those of you who share a computer. As it’ll delete any cookies once the user logs out of incognito mode, it also stops info that’s irrelevant to you from popping up each time you’re online.
2. It can protect your data when using a public computer
Let’s say you’re using a public computer to quickly check your bank balance in a regular (non-incognito) window. Then you get distracted, rush off and belatedly realise you forgot to log out of your account. Oof.
You’ve now opened up your highly sensitive financial information to the next person who uses the device. By making a habit of using incognito mode on any public computer, you’ll automatically be logged out as soon as you’re done with your session.
3. Incognito mode can make it easier to get around paywalls
If you’re someone who likes to read a lot of your news online, chances are you’ve encountered paywall after paywall – most of the bigger news outlets now come with one.
If you’re an occasional reader and uninterested in shelling out for a full paid subscription, incognito mode might (but not always) help you bypass these paywalls.
4. You can use incognito mode to score a better deal on travel
Leveraging your location and browsing history is something travel and flight comparison sites are big fans of. Because incognito mode limits cookie sharing, it makes it much trickier for travel websites to track you online. This means they have less chance of serving you overly-inflated pricing based on whether you’re living in a higher-income area or have repeatedly returned to the site to check the cost.
With any luck, using incognito mode may mean you see better prices on hotels and airfare than you would by browsing normally. That said, incognito mode doesn’t fool every website. For that, you’ll need a Virtual Private Network (or VPN).
5. Incognito mode can help you avoid being followed by annoying online ads
For those of you looking to shake off those pesky advertisers who have a habit of following you from one site to the next (that makes all of us, then!), using incognito mode can often be enough to get the job done on its own.
6. You can log into the same site from multiple accounts
Let’s say you want to check your Facebook account. Then your friend asks whether they can check theirs as well on your computer. By opening up a new browser window in incognito mode, there’s no need for you to go to the hassle of logging out and back into your account again later.
7. It can help you identify any glitches with your extensions or toolbars
Having browser problems? The easiest way to make sure it’s not an extension or toolbar acting up and causing the glitch is to open the session in incognito mode.
What incognito mode doesn’t do
While incognito mode is a useful feature, it’s important to fully understand the limitations of the protection it offers.
Let’s kick things off with a biggie:
Incognito mode doesn’t protect your data and identity
It’s time to debunk one of the biggest misconceptions around what incognito mode does – it offers total and complete online anonymity. As nice as this would be, using incognito mode won’t stop a website’s server (or any network you go through to get to a site) from recording the entirety of your visit.
While, yes, cookies, site data and login information will be cleared locally after you quit incognito mode, this doesn’t mean your online activity isn’t being tracked by your employer, school... the list goes on. Because your web traffic gets routed through their external network, they can easily access it this way if they choose to.
The same goes for your internet service provider – if they’re so inclined, they can easily uncover what you’re looking at.
Ditto for when you’re incognito browsing on a non-secure network – quite literally any user on the same network with a bit of know-how can track you as well.
And if you’re signed into Google, Amazon or Facebook in incognito mode, that means diddly squat to these guys. They’re more than capable of recording your browsing history, geolocation and other personal data.
Incognito mode doesn’t protect you from keystroke loggers or spyware
Yep, incognito mode does absolutely zilch when it comes to protecting you from malware.
For that, you’ll need to practice good digital habits, which include practising vigilance against phishing attempts, being mindful of the files you’re downloading from the internet, making sure your computer’s software is regularly updated and – most importantly – that you’re running anti-malware software on all of your devices. We’ve got you covered with more tips on staying safe online with the following resources:
How to overcome the limitations of incognito mode
So, as it turns out, incognito mode isn’t quite so incognito after all. What’s a privacy-conscious person supposed to do?
Well, you’ll need a VPN if you’re really looking to shield your web traffic from prying eyes.
A VPN funnels all your traffic through an encrypted network, making it difficult for any third parties to monitor your online activity. By virtue of the fact they put another server between other websites and your device, VPNs come with a whole range of privacy and security benefits your browser’s incognito mode just can’t match.
That’s why, at Clario, we’ve combined our anti-malware and VPN software to create one of the most powerful cybersecurity solutions on the market.