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Is Browser Incognito Mode Really Private? Let’s Find Out

Does your browser's "incognito mode" actually keep your online activities incognito and can I be tracked? Well, not as much as you might think, let's answer.

Everyone has a favorite method for browsing the web privately. Mine includes drawn shades, a big bowl of chocolate chip ice cream, fluffy bunny slippers and a comfy couch.

No, wait, that’s how I enjoy Mean Girls. I mean – Incognito Mode! That’s what I meant to say!

But seriously, did you know that, even if you use your browser’s Incognito Mode, third parties can still track your online activities? Third parties can include your Internet Service Provider, the government, and that guy who seems to spend the whole day using his laptop on the Wi-Fi hotspot at Starbucks.

In this article, I’ll cover what Incognito Mode is and how you can enable it in the browser you use. I’ll also explain why this privacy-enhancing mode doesn’t offer as much protection as you may think.

Last but not least, I’ll tell you ways to plug the privacy holes that Incognito Mode leaves open, making your web browsing sessions truly incognito.

So, grab your fuzzy bunny slippers, grab a bowl of ice cream, and get a comfy chair, because I’m about to lay some “incognito” knowledge on you.

What Does Incognito Mode Do?

Incognito Mode is a special mode, available on most popular browsers, that helps users hide their online activities from other users of the computer. Different browsers call this mode different things (more about that shortly).

Whatever it’s called, it deletes the history of any websites you may visit during the session, saves no information you may enter in forms you fill out, and deletes any “cookies” that you might collect along the way. Chrome’s Incognito Mode can optionally block third-party cookies, which track you during your online travels. (Google does warn you that blocking third-party cookies may cause features of some websites to not operate correctly.)

Cookies are small text files saved during web browsing sessions that do many things, such as keeping you logged in on websites, keeping track of your online shopping cart, and sadly, tracking your travels on the internet. (That’s why you began seeing those ads for GoDaddy after you checked to see if the domain “fluffybunnyslippers.com” was still available.)

What Are Cookies?

Incognito Mode gets rid of everything you collect during a session, making it impossible for other users to see which websites you’ve visited during your session.

Be aware, however, that any bookmarks you create or files you download will remain after you’ve closed your incognito session.

How Do I Activate Incognito Mode?

Activating Incognito Mode varies depending on the browser you’re using. I’ll cover the most popular browsers: Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge, and Internet Explorer.

Google Chrome

Google Chrome on Mac

Starting Incognito Mode in the Google Chrome browser on the Mac takes just two clicks of the mouse. In the Chrome menu, click “File” -> “New Incognito Window.” Or, you can click the three dots in the upper right-hand corner and then click on “New Incognito Window.”

Google Chrome New Private Window

Google Chrome on Windows

Starting Incognito Mode in the Google Chrome browser in Windows also takes just two clicks of the mouse. The Windows version of Chrome lacks a “File” menu, so you simply click the three dots in the upper right-hand corner and then click on “New Incognito Window.”

On either platform, Windows or Mac, a new window will open, which opens in a darker mode than your normal browser window. A notification is included, telling you that you’re browsing in Incognito Mode, helpfully explaining what Incognito Mode helps keep private, and even more importantly, what it doesn’t keep private.

Firefox

Firefox on Mac

To start a “Private” (Incognito) browsing session in the Firefox browser, click “File” -> “New Private Window.” Or, you can click the “Hamburger” icon (three horizontal lines) in the upper right-hand corner of the browser window, then click on “New Private Window” from the pull-down menu.

Firefox New Private Window

Firefox on Windows

Firefox on Windows lacks a “File” menu, so you must click the “Hamburger” icon (three horizontal lines) in the upper right-hand corner of the browser window, then click on “New Private Window” from the pull-down menu.

On both platforms, a new window will open up in a darker theme than you’ll usually see, and your Private browsing session will begin. Close the window when you have finished.

Safari

To start a “Private” (Incognito) browsing session in Apple’s Safari browser, click “File” -> “New Private Window.”

Safari New Private Window

A new “Private” window will open, and your incognito session will begin. Close the new window to return to your normal browsing session.

Microsoft Edge

To open an “InPrivate” (incognito) browsing session in the Microsoft Edge browser, click on the “More actions” button – it looks like three dots (…) and is located on the right end of the address bar.

In the menu that appears, click the “New InPrivate window” menu item.

Microsoft Edge New InPrivate Window

A new “InPrivate” secure browser window will open. Close it when you wish to return to a normal browsing session.

Microsoft Internet Explorer

Although Microsoft is slowly phasing out the Internet Explorer browser, it remains available in Windows 10, and a large number of internet users still use it (why, I have no idea), so I decided to include it in this roundup.

To launch an “InPrivate” (incognito) browsing session in Microsoft Internet Explorer, click on “Settings” -> “Safety” -> “InPrivate Browsing.” Microsoft Internet Explorer InPrivate Browsing

A new “InPrivate” browser window will open. Close it when you’re finished, and you’ll return to a normal browsing session.

Internet Explorer InPrivate Browsing Turned On

Opera

To open a new private window in Opera on Windows or macOS, you can either go through the menu: “File” -> “New Private Window.” Or, you can use keyboard shortcuts: Ctrl+Shift+N for Windows and CMD(⌘)+Shift+N for Mac.

A new private browsing window will appear. You’ll know it’s a private browsing window thanks to the darker browser tab color, and the default private browsing window will also be titled “Private Browsing” and the body of the page will say “You are in private mode.”

For additional privacy, Opera has a built-in VPN that protects your browser activity from third parties trying to observe or track your online antics. (Keep in mind that the Opera “VPN” only keeps your Opera browser activity encrypted – all other connections your Mac or PC are using are still unencrypted. This includes any other browsers you may be using.)

The Online Privacy Issues of Incognito Mode

Whatever the name for it, Incognito Mode does an excellent job of preventing your web browser of choice from saving information about your browsing session.

However, it doesn’t do jack when it comes to preventing any other type of monitoring of your online activities.

While Incognito Mode keeps your browsing habits safe from exposure to other users on your local computer or mobile device, it leaves your online travels open to monitoring, and your true IP address is still visible to all.

Just as most browsers warn you when entering Incognito Mode, your Internet Service Provider will still be able to track your online activity, happily logging the websites you visit, the files you download, and more. Advertisers love that information and will pay through the nose for it.

And it’s not just your ISP that can see what you do online while in Incognito Mode – the government can still track you, too. They can do it by either actively monitoring your activities or serving a subpoena to your ISP to get their hands on those logs the advertisers love so much.

Then there’s the guy down at the coffee shop who seems to be there every time you visit and make use of the shop’s free, unprotected WiFi hotspot. He has the tools to monitor your online activities and steal your valuable personal info, like your bank account numbers, website logins, and much more – and Incognito Mode doesn’t do a thing to stop him.

Yep, all of those “prying eyes” I’m always warning you about? They can still watch your every move, even when you’re browsing “Incognito.”

So, How Can I Browse Privately on the Internet?

In this section, I’ll share 3 of my favorite privacy-protecting tools. I’ll explain how each one improves your security by adding layers of protection that your browser’s Incognito Mode can’t offer on its own.

You can use the first two of them alongside your favorite browser’s undercover browsing mode to make it more secure, while the third is a secure browsing solution that you can use instead of your browser’s Incognito Mode.

Here are my 3 foolproof methods to keep your online activities truly incognito.

VPNs

If you’re a regular visitor to my website, then you know my privacy tool of choice is the Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN provides the best protection available today for internet users who want to ensure that their online travels go unrecorded.

A VPN is an excellent addition to any user’s privacy toolkit, but particularly for those users who regularly access Incognito Mode in their favorite browsers.

A VPN provides an encrypted tunnel for your internet connection, hiding your online travels from prying eyes, much like a train or highway tunnel hides the train or car during real-world travels.

When standing over a subway or highway tunnel, an observer can detect that there is traffic flowing through the tunnel. However, that observer has no way of knowing how many cars are in the tunnel, how fast they’re going or what their final destination is.

A VPN’s encrypted connection “tunnel” provides the same type of protection for your online activities. While your ISP or government may be able to tell that you’re connected to a VPN provider, they have no way of knowing where your travels take you from there. All of your online activities are protected by the layer of encryption.

How a VPN Hides Internet Browsing Activity From Prying Eyes

That same encryption keeps your personal and business-related information safe from “hacker boy” down at the coffee shop, as the encryption makes unreadable any information you send via the VPN while banking or shopping online.

In addition to encrypting your internet connection, VPNs also provide more than a few other helpful features.

Movie lovers can use a VPN’s ability to change their IP address to make it appear that they’re located somewhere other than their actual physical location, which enables them to open up access to film and television content that might normally be blocked in their region.

Unblocking Netflix’s regional content blockades is an excellent example of a VPN’s unblocking ability.

Netflix’s content contracts with movie studios and television networks require them to restrict viewing of the content to specific regions of the world. However, a VPN can open up access to the blocked content, greatly increasing a viewer’s entertainment vistas.

How Does a VPN Work

The same is true for other video streaming providers, as well as music streaming services and online gaming providers, as a VPN can unblock any regional blocks they may place on their content.

A VPN is also an efficient way to prevent ISPs from detecting your P2P/BitTorrent file-sharing activities – especially those that have a nasty habit of blocking all P2P traffic, including legitimate file sharing among co-workers.

If you’re a regular visitor to this site, you know that my VPN of choice is NordVPN.

NordVPN provides top-notch connection protection thanks to its use of banking-grade encryption, kill switch protection, and much more. The provider’s CyberSec protection option blocks malware-infected websites, botnets and online ads. Users can also make use of NordVPN’s Double VPN coverage to change their IP address twice for added anonymity.

The provider owns and operates its global server network, keeping third-party contractors away from customers’ personal info. Plus, all NordVPN servers are run 100% from RAM, never writing any data to a physical hard drive. This ensures that all data is wiped from the servers when they are restarted.

In addition to offering online protection, the provider also offers optimal access to geo-blocked content thanks to its 5,200+ strong global server network. That server network provides fast connections that can easily handle any of your favorite online activities.

Comprehensive app support means that NordVPN can easily protect the most popular devices, including the macOS (with M1, M1 Pro, and M1 Max support), Linux, Windows, Android, iOS, Amazon Fire and Android TV device platforms.

NordVPN’s excellent customer support includes 24/7 support chat, email support and a searchable support library.

Check out more information about the best VPNs for Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Edge.

DuckDuckGo

While Google, Bing and many other search engines track your searches (even when you’re surfing “Incognito”), DuckDuckGo is a completely anonymous search engine, tracking none of your search activity. DuckDuckGo does not serve up targeted ads, so they have no reason to monitor your searches.

DuckDuckGo Search

DuckDuckGo is my search engine of choice. The search provider has a strict Privacy Policy, and I trust them when they say they don’t track my use.

I highly recommend making DuckDuckGo your search engine of choice, particularly if you make regular use of your browser’s Incognito Mode. DuckDuckGo keeps all of your online searches undercover.

This search provider’s search results are culled from a total of over 400 sources, including Bing, Yahoo, Wikipedia, its own web search crawler, and many other sources (but nothing from Google).

Tor

The Tor Browser is based on the Mozilla Firefox browser platform but has been modified to be extremely privacy-friendly.

Tor Browser Search Bar

The Tor Browser anonymizes your online browsing traffic through a series of distributed relays, which thousands of volunteers around the globe run.

By sending the browser’s requests and responses through these relays, Tor obfuscates your real IP address, preventing any third parties from tracking your activities back to you and your actual location.

Tor also opens up access to blocked websites, making it a particularly popular tool for journalists and activists in restrictive areas of the world.

However, the Tor Browser is not the best solution for viewing streaming video – or other online activities that require a fast, responsive connection – as it slows your connection down by routing it through the relays that provide anonymity.

Conclusion

While your browser’s Incognito Mode is an excellent way to keep local folks from viewing your browsing activities, we’ve learned that it doesn’t do much when it comes to protecting you from the prying eyes of other online users, your ISP, or the government and law enforcement.

Luckily, we’ve also learned that there are 3 strong methods available that can enhance the protection that Incognito Mode offers or even replace the need for the mode entirely.

Making use of any or all of the 3 solutions I’ve shared today will do a much better job of protecting your online privacy than Incognito Mode alone. Browse wisely, my friends.

Browser Incognito Mode FAQs

What Does Incognito Mode Do?

When you use your browser in incognito mode, the browser doesn't save any of your browsing history, cookies, site data or any information that you've entered in forms on your device. This ensures that your online activities do not show up in your browser history, ensuring that no other users of the device can view your activity.

Does Incognito Mode Work?

Using your browser in Incognito Mode does keep other users from viewing your browser history, or accessing any data you may have accessed while in incognito mode.

However, your ISP, your employer or anyone else who is monitoring or tracking your online activities can still see which sites you are currently visiting. Incognito mode doesn't hide your online activities like a Virtual Private Network (VPN) does, as it does not encrypt your connection, leaving your current activities open to monitoring.

Is Incognito Mode Safe?

Unlike a VPN or antivirus or anti-malware protection, Incognito Mode doesn't add any extra security protections for your browsing sessions. Hackers can still install malware through your browser in Incognito Mode.

Do browser extensions work in incognito mode?

Incognito Mode automatically disables all your browser extensions. However, in most browsers with an incognito or private mode, you can enable individual extensions. Before doing so, keep in mind that your browser disables extensions for a good reason while in incognito mode, as some extensions track your online activities and record data about your online activity.

How do I make all browser tabs incognito?

While there isn’t a way to switch all of your open tags simultaneously to incognito mode, you can convert an open tab in Chrome by using the Incognito This! Extension. You can also start most popular browsers in incognito or private mode by making a few modifications in how the browser loads. For more information, go here.

How do I get out of incognito mode?

There is no one definitive way to get out of incognito mode, as the mode can be implemented in different ways by different browsers. However, typically there are two ways to exit incognito mode: (1) by closing the browser window or tab; or (2) by selecting "Exit Incognito Mode" from the menu. Some browsers also provide a keyboard shortcut for exiting incognito mode.

Can incognito mode be tracked?

Yes, incognito mode can be tracked. While incognito mode prevents your browsing history and search history from being saved on your device, your internet service provider (ISP) can still track the websites you visit and the searches you perform while in incognito mode.

Additionally, any cookies that are stored on your device while in incognito mode can be accessed by websites you visit. So if you're trying to stay hidden from someone online, using incognito mode isn't enough. You'll need to use a VPN or other method of online security to protect your identity.


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