Is Browser Incognito Mode Really Private?
Let's Find Out
Everyone has a favorite method for browsing the web privately. Mine includes drawn shades, a big bowl of chocolate chip ice cream, 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, your online antics can still be tracked by 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.
The special mode is called by different names on different browsers (more about that shortly). 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.
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.)
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.
Starting Incognito Mode in the Google Chrome browser takes just two clicks of the mouse. In the Chrome menu, click “File” -> “New Incognito Window.”
A new window will open, which is 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.
To start a “Private” (Incognito) browsing session in the Firefox browser, click “File” -> “New Private Window.”
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.
To start a “Private” (Incognito) browsing session in Apple’s Safari browser, click “File” -> “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.
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.
A new “InPrivate” 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, 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.”
A new “InPrivate” browser window will open. Close it when you’re finished, and you’ll return to a normal browsing session.
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 Wi-Fi 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.
The first two of them can be used alongside your favorite browser’s undercover browsing mode to make it more secure, while the third is a secure browsing solution that can be used instead of your browser’s Incognito Mode.
Here are my 3 foolproof methods to keep your online activities truly incognito.
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 those users who regularly access Incognito Mode in their favorite browsers.
A VPN provides an encrypted tunnel for your internet connection, keeping your online travels safe from prying eyes, much like a train or highway tunnel provides for 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.
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 a user is located somewhere other 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.
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.
In addition, ISPs are also known to contact entertainment industry lawyers if they notice you’re sharing movies or music. A VPN keeps your file sharing activities undercover. No detection equals no nasty letters from Paramount’s legal department.
For more information about VPNs or to read my reviews of popular VPN providers, visit the VPN area of my website.
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.
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 is used from Google).
The Tor Browser is based on the Mozilla Firefox browser platform, but has been modified to be extremely privacy-friendly.
The Tor Browser anonymizes your online browsing traffic through a series of distributed relays, run by thousands of volunteers around the globe.
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 of 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.
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 offered by Incognito Mode or even replace the need for the mode entirely.
A VPN makes for an excellent way to keep all of your online activities undercover. Not only is your browsing activity kept hidden from outsiders, but all of your online antics are kept from being revealed, making a VPN the ultimate privacy protection tool.
DuckDuckGo is a convenient way to keep your search activities undercover while using Incognito Mode, preventing the big guys - like Google, Bing and others that monitor your searches - from logging your search activity for sale to the highest bidder.
Finally, we took a look at how the Tor Browser can remove the need for Incognito Mode, replacing it with a privacy-friendly browser that keeps all of your online browsing activities from being detected or traced back to your IP address.
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.