Browsing the web in incognito mode hides your online search history and browsing from other users.
However, it isn’t an invisible cloak you can put on to remain unseen. Your digital footprint can still be traced by other parties. But this doesn’t have to stop you from making the most out of your online browsing experience.
Summary: Incognito is a special browsing mode that allows you to search the web without storing the browsing history on your device. You can use it to log in to multiple accounts at the same time, avoid dynamic pricing, and keep your browsing history clean. That said, the private browsing mode doesn’t keep your online footprint invisible to your network administrator, internet service provider, or search engines.
What is Incognito Mode?
You can think of incognito mode (or private mode) as a separate, private browsing window you can open in your web browser. You can open a private window in Google Chrome, Safari, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Internet Explorer, or any other browser.
Private mode windows allow you to search the web without it leaving a record in your search history. For example, you can read a news article about a sensitive topic in incognito mode without the article’s URL appearing in the search history section on your browser.
Also, when you end the incognito mode, there will be no cookies or similar traces of the online session in the browser.
Using a browser window in incognito mode means that:
Browsing history can’t be associated with your browsing session
Browsing history won’t be saved on your device
If you share a computer with your sibling or parent, they won’t be able to see the sites you opened or the nature of your Google search.
But there’s a major (potential) issue with the incognito mode. Even though the data you generate won’t be stored on your local device, it will still be visible to your internet service provider (ISP), search engine, and any company that can track your online footprint when browsing in incognito mode.
The Meaning of “Incognito”
When something is done incognito, it means it’s done while hiding the identity of the person who performs the action. You can also refer to the incognito mode as private browsing mode. But do remember that the information is only hidden from the local device you use to access the web.
The browsing behavior and IP address are still accessible to third parties.
How Incognito Mode Works
Incognito mode allows the users to surf the internet as if they were visiting each site for the very first time. So when you open an incognito tab, a website will think you never visited it. This means no cookies, auto-filled web forms, or login information waiting.
Also, when you’re browsing incognito, the websites won’t be able to show you personalized offers based on your browsing behavior. This is one of the reasons why travelers often purchase flight tickets in private mode. The price doesn’t increase if more people search for it.
Logging Into Personal Accounts During Incognito Mode
Note that if you sign in to your Google, Facebook, or any personal account during the incognito browsing session, all your data will be saved. Doing so still won’t make the pages you visited appear in your search history, but it will help advertisers and websites to collect your personal data during the log in session.
Some browsers like Google Chrome will let you choose whether you want to allow third-party cookies during your incognito session or not. Usually, cookies are automatically blocked in the incognito mode. So if your goal is to see less personalized ads, you can block these cookies. However, note that it can impact the functionality of web pages you visit.
Opening Multiple Incognito Mode Windows
If you use an incognito mode on one window, and wish to open another window, your browser may simply open another incognito mode tab inside the current window. This functionality depends on the privacy settings of browsers.
For example, Safari will treat every new private browsing window as a new session. Chrome, on the other hand, will continue the existing incognito session. This way, your Chrome incognito session will end when you exit all windows or tabs using the private mode.
For Chrome, you can see how many windows your browser has open in the upper right corner of the incognito window.
How to Use Incognito Mode
Most modern browsers allow users to go into private browsing mode.
Here’s an overview with step-by-step instructions on how to open the incognito mode in the most popular browsers – Chrome, Safari, Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Edge.
If you’re using a computer, start private browsing by following the steps below:
Launch Chrome on your computer.
Click “More” from the top right corner and hit “New Incognito Window”.
Look for the Incognito icon in the top right corner. This means you have started private browsing mode.
You can also press the following buttons at the same time to start browsing incognito with a shortcut:
Windows, Chrome OS, and Linux: “Ctrl” + “Shift” + “n”
Mac: “Command” + “Shift” + “n”
You can also use the Chrome app on your Android or iPhone and launch private mode by hitting “More” on top of your address bar.
For Safari users, you can start private browsing mode on your computer by following the easy steps below:
Open Safari on your device.
Hit “File” from the task bar.
Press “New Private Window.”
You will now start browsing privately on Safari.
Alternatively, press “Command” + “Shift” + “n” to open a new private browsing window.
You can also use the Safari app on your phone to enter private browsing mode:
Start a new page in the Safari app.
Hit “Private” in the bottom left corner.
Press the “+” icon or hit “Done” to start private browsing.
Open the Firefox app on your computer.
Hit the “Menu” icon from the top right corner.
Pick “New Private Window” from the drop-down menu.
Alternatively, use the following shortcut to start browsing privately:
“Shift” + “Command” + “p” on your MacOS
“Shift” + “CTRL” + “p” on your Linux or Windows device
Note that this browser refers to private browsing as “InPrivate”. To open an InPrivate window in Edge, follow the steps below:
Launch the “Edge” Menu in the top right corner of your browser window.
Pick the “New InPrivate Window” option.
You can press the following buttons at the same time to achieve the same result:
“Shift” + “CTRL” + “n”
How Private Incognito Mode Really Is?
As previously mentioned, your search history, browsing history, and cookies won’t be saved locally on your device when you browse in private mode. Bookmarking sites, downloading files, and similar actions will remain visible to whoever uses that same device. Regardless of whether you’ve ended the incognito session or not, this data will remain visible.
You’re most likely aware that when you browse normally, all your cookies, search and browsing history will be saved on your device. You can delete these files manually or use a cleaning software option.
However, there are more methods you can try to keep your online security safe. For example, with a VPN service, you can secure your online activity so no one can trace it back to your device or to you. VPN software uses a fully encrypted protection system, so any data you generate will be super hard to read (or decipher) on behalf of hackers, advertisers, and even your internet service provider.
Can Someone Track Me in Incognito Mode?
Online tracking is a common method used by analytics software, advertisers, and institutions to collect data about the visitors of their websites. Companies rely on this data to create authentic profiles of people they like to call “a digital footprint.”
Without you knowing it, there are probably hundreds of companies that have access to your digital footprint. Data inside it can include basic information about your operating system, time-zone, browser, location, language, device specifications, and more.
Every website has numerous scripts that run in the background, and the information is collected by those scripts. These processes are often indistinguishable from the scripts used by companies to make sure their web pages run and operate normally.
But tracking isn’t only used to make a website run well. It can also identify just about any person with an extremely high level of accuracy. This includes:
Using ad tracking to collect information about a consumer’s online behavior and send targeted ads
Show higher prices on products a user searched for online
The danger of data breaches, data leaks, and similar malicious actions performed by hackers in order to sell personal data
Users who block third-party cookies still aren’t 100% safe from tracking. Whenever you sign into your Facebook, Google, or Amazon account, you allow these websites to identify your digital fingerprint and tweak the content you see accordingly.
Who Has Access to Your Incognito Mode History?
Most web browsers remember the websites you visit. Some of them, like Mozilla, let you delete your browsing history right after finishing a session.
But other than your history, websites also keep track of your habits, activities, and preferences. You can remove those files independently from most browsers by simply deleting the browsing history.
With incognito mode, you prevent the browser from saving your history and cookies on your device after ending your session. But this doesn’t completely hide your online activity. You should delete your incognito history manually to avoid the following parties having access to your online behaviour.
Here’s an overview of who can see your incognito mode history.
Any website or service you sign into while browsing privately will be able to identify you and see your browsing history.
If you’re trying to use your work computer in incognito mode to perform personal business, note that your network administrator can still see all the websites you visit during your private browsing session.
Internet Service Provider
Every action you take online has to pass through your ISP. Unless you’re using a VPN, you won’t be able to hide anything from them, not even in incognito mode.
Your search engine may be able to read your search history even when you browse in incognito mode.
Why Use Incognito Mode
There are many benefits of using incognito mode.
Hide Search History
For one, you can hide your search and browsing history from anyone who may be using the device with you. Maybe you want to look up a gift for your partner, but don’t want them to find out. You can use incognito mode to hide your traces and not ruin the surprise.
Avoid Having Websites Save Your Cookies
While browsing incognito, websites won’t save your device information. This can help you get the best price on a product or log into multiple accounts at the same time.
Protection Against Trackers
When you browse in private mode, you can expect to see little to no suggestions and targeted ads. If you sign into your personal account while browsing privately, you can expect to see targeted content.
Share Your Device Safely
Has someone asked you to lend them your phone or computer so they can use the internet? Open an incognito tab for them to avoid saving their personal data on your device. This also prevents the person from signing in or using your autofill forms.
As you can see, there are plenty of benefits of using the incognito mode. However, it’s important to be aware of all the limitations of incognito mode. You’re still exposed to the parties mentioned in the previous section (ISP, search engines, internet provider, etc).
The Pros and Cons of Incognito Mode
Incognito Mode Pros
Added privacy for shared devices
No web tracking
Sensitive information protection
Ability to log into multiple accounts on one website
Incognito Mode Cons
Doesn’t hide the IP address
Doesn’t hide online behavior from network administrators
Account activity is still tracked when you log into an account
Frequently Asked Questions
What does incognito mode really do?
Incognito mode allows you to hide your internet activity like browsing and search history and cookies from being saved on your device locally. It doesn’t, however, keep your IP address hidden.
Is incognito mode actually secret?
Incognito mode is secret in a way as it doesn’t store your search and browsing history locally. Rather, it makes data visible to search engines, network administrators, and internet service providers.
Is it safe to go incognito?
Yes, it’s absolutely safe to go incognito. But doing so won’t help you detect and prevent viruses, malware, or any other malicious activity from making it into your computer or mobile device.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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