Modern internet browsers all come with a function that’s named something along the lines of ‘incognito browsing’ or ‘private browsing’ mode. These are promoted with the idea that in using them, you are helping to safeguard your privacy on the internet – but that isn’t strictly true.
While an incognito or ‘private’ browser window may stop other people who use your device from seeing your search history, they offer no such protections as far as the wider web is concerned. Look closely at the text when you open a new incognito window in Google Chrome or Firefox on your desktop or smartphone devices. It becomes clear that your online activities are not being hidden from the sites you visit. Your internet service provider or really anyone but those who you share your device with.
If you are confused about your online privacy, here’s the lowdown on regular browser tracking, the pros, and cons of incognito; and some better ways to keep your online life private and secure.
How regular browsing works
Ordinarily, your browser – such as Safari, Chrome, Firefox, or Edge – stores a detailed history of your online browsing habits. That’s things like the websites you visit, autocomplete data like usernames and addresses, searches you’ve entered and tracking cookies which offer information about your preferences and habits.
That might sound relatively innocuous, but this information can be used to target you with irritating advertising. In some cases, it can be sold on to third parties without your knowledge, and at a lower level. It can mean that when somebody borrows your device, they get prompted with your recent searches and viewed items.
What incognito browsing does
When you use an incognito window instead of an ordinary one, your browser doesn’t store history locally – on your device. That means that someone who borrows your phone or laptop at a later date won’t see searches. Because you’ve made during incognito browsing. Besides, any tracking cookies stored during your incognito session will be removed as soon as your browser is closed.
Incognito windows can be helpful if you’re borrowing someone else’s device and want to log into your own accounts without logging them out of their own. As the browser window won’t insist that someone else is logged in to the site you’re trying to access.
What incognito browsing doesn’t do
Sadly, if you’re hoping to keep your digital life private from people you don’t share a laptop with, incognito mode isn’t really going to help.
Information including every website you visit, connection times, and the content you interact with can be traced back to you in a heartbeat using your IP address, which is not hidden by ‘incognito’ mode. Though your browser isn’t recording the sites you’ve visited, those websites are perfectly aware that you’ve stopped by.
It’s also worth knowing that if you’re using a Google app, Chrome will still be recording your cookies and history as if you’d never switched to incognito at all.
If you don’t feel that you have anything to hide, you may concern with the idea that your internet service provider or employer can see what you’ve been up to online in spite of incognito. But if targeted advertising drives you round the bend, it’s worth knowing that incognito isn’t going to save you from it.
Ways to stay private online
There are two main tools for keeping your browsing activities legitimately private, both are easily accessible, though arguably with differing levels of ease of use.
The first option is to use a virtual private network or VPN. When you install a VPN app on your devices and switch it on before browsing the internet, everything you send and receive online travels through a layer of end-to-end encryption, and via a server located elsewhere in the world.
That means that VPN encryption your files and data. It hides your IP address and location. Any sites you browse will only know that someone connected to the VPN server has visited. Once you log off, they won’t be able to connect anything you’ve viewed or done with your actual IP address.
As well as preventing anyone on your device from seeing your search history and preferences. A VPN also stops your internet service provider from spying on you. Anyone concerned about their boss, college or even government snooping can rest assured their activities are truly private.
Tor stands for The Onion Router – named as such because it offers layer upon layer of protection. Like a VPN, Tor works by channeling your network connection through servers in other locations. It hides your IP address from view. However, while a VPN sends you through a single additional access point. Traffic passing through Tor relay and encrypt at least three times as it passes through some of the thousands of servers known as Tor relays.
The downside of Tor is that the multiple redirects can mean your connection is heavily slowed down. In addition, a lot of dark web users opt for Tor to hide their identities, law enforcement agencies are known to try and access the network regularly.
The important thing to remember is that incognito browsing is not an effective online privacy measure. Whichever alternative you prefer, if you want to stop third parties from accessing your search history or targeting you with overly-personal adverts, it’s best to put a more serious defense in place.
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