The truth behind private browsing or incognito mode

Most browsers come with a private browsing mode that promises to protect your privacy. Chrome calls this feature “Incognito Mode”. But 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 complete anonymity. This article busts some myths and shines a light on the reality that incognito mode and private browsing aren’t so private after all.

Who coined the term “incognito mode”?

While Apple was the first to introduce private browsing functionality with Safari, it was Google who came up with the term “incognito mode” to describe the same feature in Chrome.

In fact, Private Browsing works the same in most modern browsers, but is known by different labels. For example, Edge calls it InPrivate Browsing, while Firefox and Safari just call it Private Browsing. Opera calls the feature Private Mode.

For the purposes of this guide, we’re using Chrome and Incognito mode as an example, since the Google browser is the most widely used in the world.

How to use incognito mode

Launch Google Chrome and tap CTRL + Change + NOT under Windows and Ordered + Change + NOT in macOS to launch a new Chrome window in incognito mode. The feature has a black background with some general guidelines.

Chrome Incognito mode taskbar shortcut

You can also right-click the Chrome app icon on the taskbar and select the “New incognito window” option to directly open an incognito mode.

If you use another browser, you can rely on the same elements to launch a private window:

  • Relevant menu option (usually listed under the “File” menu)
  • Designated hotkey (usually displayed next to the menu item)
  • Browser Taskbar/Dock icon

Private browsing is also a feature of most modern mobile browsers.

What is incognito mode for?

When browsing the web in incognito mode, the main task 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:

  • Navigation history: this includes all websites you visit, whether you have logged in to them or not.
  • Caching and cookies: these cover authentication on sites you have logged into, site-specific preferences and settings, parts of web pages saved for faster loading, etc.
  • Web searches: all the searches you have done on Google, Bing, etc. Your search queries are always logged by the relevant server. Note that privacy-focused search engines like DuckDuckGo don’t track your searches at all, but they do record them in your browsing history unless you’re using private browsing.
  • Login information: any usernames or passwords you have entered.
  • Form data: any information such as name and address that you may have entered into a form.
  • Site Permissions: any permissions you have granted to a website, such as location or microphone access, will not be recorded. Indeed, the cookies used by the sites to record this data are not recorded.

When using incognito mode, you are not signed into your Google Account unless you do so manually. Of course, none of the activity in the Incognito window’s browser session is associated with your Google Account. This remains true even if you signed in to Google through a normal window alongside the incognito window.

Incognito mode in Chrome has a new option. At the bottom is a toggle to prevent third-party sites from using cookies. Cookies are small packets of data that sites use to track you to other sites. Have you ever wondered how you can see travel booking ads on all sites right after searching for air tickets on a separate site? Cookies.

Incognito mode settings in Chrome

The moment you close incognito mode, your browser will forget that the browsing session ever happened. It will immediately delete browsing history, cache and cookies. It is impossible for anyone with access to your computer to know 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 pairs of eyes tracking your online activity, not to mention a loop-hole or two.

Who can follow you in incognito mode?

Incognito or private browsing mode 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 likely still are tracked. For example, any item you purchase from Amazon will appear in your order list. Likewise, Google saves your search history if you log in, unless you’ve suspended web and app activity from your My Google Activity dashboard.
  • internet service provider: your ISP can follow your movements through the pages of the Web, thanks to the IP address which it assigned to you.
  • Network administrators: if you use your work or school computer, relevant authorities may track your browsing activity.
  • Data hackers and brokers: private browsing is not a deterrent to anyone who is in the business of eavesdropping on digital activities and has the resources to do so.

Another key point to remember is that your computer saves all files you’ve downloaded and URLs you’ve bookmarked in “incognito” mode. You have to 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 other people at home/office/school to know what you are doing. Deleting browsing history manually is a hassle, and people often forget to do it, leading to awkward and awkward scenarios and discussions.

Incognito mode is also useful when you want to sign in to the same service using two separate accounts, for example, Gmail or an online game. Another way to do this is to use two different browser apps such as Chrome and Edge.

Incognito Mode in Edge Browser

Incognito mode is used to fix browser-specific issues such as extension conflicts, bugs, etc.

Incognito mode is highly recommended when using public devices or someone else’s computers. In this way, closing the private session will delete all traces without further action on your part.

Incognito mode gives a clean slate each time you launch it, but with the caveats described above.

Best Incognito Mode Alternatives

What should you use instead of 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 hiding the IP address assigned by your ISP and changing your location to another part of the world. VPN is often used to access geo-restricted content on popular internet streaming sites and circumvent geo-based censorship.

VPN connected on Mac

Tor also hides your IP address and keeps your online activity private, but uses an entirely different protocol to do so. Although you can use TOR like a regular browser, it’s better suited for accessing the dark web, a network of unindexed websites that are inaccessible in the usual way.

Tor is more secure but more goal-oriented. It is also much slower, while VPN is general purpose and faster. For more details on how these services work and how they differ, read our comparison of Tor and VPN.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can I open multiple incognito windows?

Yes. You can open multiple separate incognito windows, but they are still part of the same incognito session. You will need to close all browser windows in incognito mode to permanently log off.

2. Does incognito mode help guarantee lower prices when booking flights?

Not really. Although this belief has persisted over the years, in recent times it has been cast as a myth. Airfares are often volatile and vary depending 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 be infected with malware, viruses, and other forms of online threats. Be careful of the websites you visit and the files you download when using incognito mode.

4. Can you turn off the Incognito browsing feature?

In most cases, private browsing is not enabled by default. You must manually open the browser window in incognito mode to use incognito.

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Gaurav Bidasaria
Gaurav Bidasaria

CA by profession and tech enthusiast by passion, Gaurav loves tinkering with new technologies and gadgets. He left CA in his last year to follow his passion. He has over seven years of experience as a writer covering consumer technologies and writes how-to guides, comparisons, lists and explainers for B2B and B2C apps and services. He recently started training, but most of the time you will find him playing or streaming.

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