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Incognito mode: How anonymous does it make you?

Last edited: September 10, 2020
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Summary: How Anonymous is Incognito Mode?

Most browsers have an incognito mode. When you use it, your browser won’t store any information about the websites you visit. This provides you with a little bit of extra online privacy, but isn’t enough if you want to surf the web securely and privately.

If you want to browse more anonymously, we recommend taking the following precautions:

  • Use a trustworthy, reliable VPN. We recommend ExpressVPN, because it offers high speeds and high quality.
  • Use the Tor browser.
  • Don’t log in to any online accounts if you want to keep a session anonymous.
  • Use an anonymous search engine.
  • Avoid creating bookmarks.

Want to know more about the incognito mode and anonymous browsing? Read our full article below to have all your questions answered.

Do you ever find yourself secretly looking for a gift for your significant other? Do you ever need to arrange your financials on a computer that isn’t yours? Or do you visit 18+ websites while you’d prefer to keep this to yourself? There are many reasons to want to surf as anonymously as possible and keep your internet activities hidden. Fortunately, there are many ways to do this, as well, although not all of them are equally reliable. Many browsers nowadays have a built-in “incognito” or “private browsing” option. But how anonymous is this incognito mode truly?

We can already tell you that the incognito mode is not as anonymous as you might think. If you really want to be anonymous online, you’ll be far better off using a VPN service.

What is Incognito Mode?

The term “incognito” seems to speak for itself. When you enable the incognito mode, you’re incognito, or unrecognizable. At least, that’s the idea. In practice, however, you’re far from unrecognizable.

Nowadays, the “private browsing” mode is a standard option in many browsers. In some cases, it can give the user some extra anonymity. Many people regularly delete their internet data, including their search history, cookies, passwords and so on. The incognito mode takes care of this, so you don’t have to go through this process every time yourself. Instead of regularly deleting your entire internet data, you can enter this mode and none of your internet data will be stored on your computer.

However, this is anything but a thorough way to browse the internet anonymously. For starters, only the data in the incognito window won’t be saved. Your IP address, operating system, the fonts you have installed and all sorts of other information can still be saved while browsing in incognito mode. Moreover, the incognito mode only ensures that data isn’t stored on your computer: it’s still sent to the internet.

How do I go incognito on my browser?

Most browsers these days include an incognito mode. This is sometimes also referred to as an incognito screen, a private screen, or private mode. The table below tells you how to start incognito mode on your PC or laptop when you’re using Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Brave or Safari.

Browser Mouse Keyboard
Chrome Settings (top right) & New Incognito Window Ctrl + Shift + N
Edge Settings (top right) > New InPrivate Window Crtl + Shift + P
Firefox Settings (top right) > New Private Window Ctrl + Shift + P
Brave Settings (top right) > New Incognito Window Ctrl + Shift + N
Safari Settings (top right) > Private mode Shift + Command + N

Illustrated below are some examples of the private windows of several different browsers. The sequence from top left to bottom right is: Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, and Brave.

How to Open An Incognito Tab by Default

We’ve already discussed how to enable the incognito mode in the different browsers. Although it’s very easy to switch to incognito mode, it’s also easy to forget to do this. Instead of always switching on incognito mode manually, you can also choose to have your browser start in incognito mode by default.

Google Chrome

With Google Chrome, you can make sure incognito mode starts up automatically by following these steps:

  • Right-click the Google Chrome shortcut (in your taskbar, on your desktop or in the start menu). A menu will appear that includes your bookmarks, most visited websites, and so on.
  • Right-click the Google Chrome icon and select “Properties”.
  • Go to the “Target” text box. At the end of the “Target” field, add “-incognito” (outside the quotes and with a space just before them). This will likely look as follows: “C:\Program Files (x86)\Google\Chrome\Application\chrome.exe” -incognito.
  • Click on “OK” at the bottom to save your changes.
  • The next time you start Google Chrome, it’ll automatically start in incognito mode.

Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla Firefox also offers the option to enable the private window by default:

  • In Firefox, go to the “Options” menu by clicking the three lines in the top right of the browser and choosing “Options”.
  • Click the “Privacy” tab on the left side of the window to access your privacy settings.
  • Under “History”, click the “Firefox will” box and select “Use custom settings for history”. Multiple options will appear.
  • Check “Always use private browsing mode”.
  • You will be prompted to restart Firefox. Click “Restart Firefox now”.
  • Firefox will now use the Private Browsing mode settings by default. The normal browser interface will be displayed and you won’t see any difference in the Firefox browser window.

Safari

The Safari browser on MacOS also has an option that allows you to open it in private mode by default:

  • Open Safari and click on “Safari – Preferences”.
  • Under “General”, click the box “Safari opens with” and select “A new private window”.
  • If you have followed the steps above, the browser will automatically open the private mode.

Brave

If you always want Brave to open in incognito mode, follow the steps below:

  • Right click on the Brave icon in your taskbar.
  • Right click on “Brave options”.
  • Go to “Properties”.
  • Scroll to the text field “Target”. Add “-Incognito” behind Brave.exe.
  • Click OK to save the changes.

Microsoft Edge doesn’t yet allow its users to start the browser in inPrivate mode by default. This may be included in future updates.

How to Disable Incognito Mode

Do you want to disable incognito mode and browse in the standard browser again? This is very simple and can be done at any time. Go to the window where private navigation is enabled. This incognito window looks different per browser. Click on the cross in the upper right corner and the incognito mode will be switched off.

Have you set your browser to open incognito mode automatically? Then simply do the opposite of the steps you have taken to activate this option, as can be found in the previous sections. Taking Firefox as an example: go to your settings and make sure you uncheck “Always use private browsing mode”.

Local vs. Online Anonymity

When talking about anonymous browsing, it’s important to make a distinction between local and online anonymity. The difference between the two depends on the place where your online activities are saved. This can happen both on your own computer and with other parties, such as websites or online trackers who aim to learn more about your online behavior.

Local anonymity means that your online history, preferences, cookies, and so on are not stored on your local device. Online anonymity means that this information isn’t stored or tracked by websites, cookies, government agencies, hackers, search engines, internet service providers, browser extensions and more. In other words, local anonymity means your data isn’t stored on your device while online anonymity means it isn’t tracked by online actors.

Your browser’s incognito mode only gives you local anonymity. It keeps your online activities from being stored on your local device. However, incognito mode doesn’t protect your online anonymity, since your information is still visible to cookies, extensions, ISPs, government agencies, search engines and many other parties. Your IP address, operating system, location and all sorts of other information remain vulnerable even when you’re browsing in incognito mode. For a good overview of parties that might be following you online, take a look at our article on tracking online behavior.

Incognito Mode in Practice: a Concrete Example

Anonymity SmartphonePicture this: you want to buy some new jeans. You open your browser, start an incognito screen, and go to https://www.asos.com/. You browse the website for a while, going through several pages of jeans and selecting different sizes. Unfortunately, you can’t find what you’re looking for, so you close the browser again. What information has been collected about you?

Since you used incognito mode, your internet history and cookies won’t have been stored to your device. The fact that you visited asos.com, searched for jeans, clicked on specific jeans, selected sizes – none of this information is stored on your device. Should someone else get behind your computer, they won’t be able to see what you were looking for. As such, the incognito mode is a great tool for looking at presents for your friends and family.

Although your browsing may no longer be visible in your browser, you have definitely left traces of your online activity on the web. During your entire session, your IP address was visible to your network administrator, your internet service provider, and asos.com. In other words: private browsing only helps you hide your online behavior for people using the same device, and not for parties who will be able to see your IP address anyway.

What Does Incognito Mode Do?

The fact that other parties can see your IP address doesn’t mean that the incognito mode is completely useless. It’s a convenient extension of your browser to protect your local anonymity. It works quickly and easily: once you’ve opened the incognito window, you’re good to go. Meanwhile, incognito mode ensures that:

  • Your browser history doesn’t keep track of anything: the websites you visit won’t be stored on the computer or in the browser, and neither will your search history. This is also useful when you’re on a public computer.
  • The cookies you use while browsing the internet are deleted after you close the browser.
  • The information you enter in online forms (usernames, passwords, etc.) will be deleted after the session. For example, if you enter your zip code at a chain store to search for opening hours, this information will not be stored on your computer. An important thing to note here is that the information you filled in is sent to the website you’re visiting once you press ‘OK’. It will be stored there, even after you’ve closed the window.
  • You might be able to get around paywalls. Some websites, like The New York Times, set up paywalls. This means users have access to a limited number of articles before they’re required to set up a paid subscription to see any further content. You can get around this by opening your browser in incognito mode. Any tracking cookies will be deleted once your session is over. When you visit the site again, you might appear to be a new visitor and have a new batch of free articles to access.

If you don’t use the private mode, all websites you visit will be neatly stored on your computer. This also applies to all cookies and completed forms such as stored passwords and addresses. This way, others might be able to sketch a very accurate picture of your internet behavior weeks or months after you opened your browser.

How do cookies work?

Cookies on screen

Cookies constantly collect data about your browser behavior without you noticing it. For example, cookies can see when you visit websites, which pages you look at, which search terms you use and what kind of products you buy. Cookies might also be able to see your location, how long you stay on certain sections of a page and which ads are most effective. In this way, advertising companies can get a better picture of you as a potential customer.

These cookies are still active when you use incognito mode, but they aren’t stored. In other words, the next time you visit ASOS, those cookies won’t know that you’re the user who was looking for jeans last time you visited.

What Can’t Incognito Mode Hide?

The most important element that incognito mode doesn’t hide, is your IP address. Your Internet Protocol (IP) address is both an identification and a localization tool. This address tells the internet exactly who and where you are.

Every device that has access to the internet has an IP address. You might see it as the digital equivalent of a post address for your device or router. When you visit a website, you actually submit a request to a web page to send information to your IP address.

Because every request over the internet is linked to an IP address, one can easily track someone’s online steps. The incognito mode won’t prevent your IP address from being linked to your online searches. Therefore, you’ll have to change or hide your IP address in some other way if you want a safer and more private online environment.

Your IP address is easy to trace

The incognito mode doesn’t hide your internet activity from parties who can see your IP address. These parties could be websites you visit, your internet provider, or the administrator of the network (e.g. your employer). If you go to your Facebook account on your work computer in private mode, your employer may very well be able to see this.

Even government agencies might be able to track your online activities. Some official organizations can go to an ISP (Internet Service Provider) to request the internet history and name and address details of specific IP addresses. This information can then also be shared with other governments. However, ISPs aren’t always required to provide user name and address information to third parties. Some recent lawsuits have shown this to be the case.

If, while browsing in a private window, you’re still sharing your internet behavior and personal information with websites, ISPs, employers and network operators, your online anonymity isn’t well-protected. That’s why it’s much better to use a VPN to protect your online anonymity.

Getting Around the Incognito Mode

In addition to the fact that the incognito mode only ensures local anonymity, there are a number of specific situations in which it won’t work either. For example, your computer might store information, even when you’re working with the incognito mode, when:

  • You add bookmarks (favorites) or download files.
  • Parental control software has been installed on the device.
  • Your computer is infected with spyware.
  • You log on to certain websites such as Google or Facebook.
  • Websites use ‘browser fingerprinting’.

All these situations are briefly explained below.

Bookmarks and downloads

Everything you download and all bookmarks you create during an incognito session will be stored on the computer. Don’t expect them to disappear once the session is over.

Parental control

Some people choose to set up parental control software on a shared computer. This allows parents to keep track of what web pages their children visit and, for example, what videos they watch on YouTube. The incognito mode usually can’t hide browser history from this type of software. The software will pick up on everything regardless.

Spyware

Spyware is a form of malware that allows the owner of the spyware-infected devices to be spied on – usually without their knowledge. If there is spyware on your computer, it can, for example, record all your keystrokes or keep a log of all your internet activities. The incognito mode can’t stop this.

Logging in on websites

The moment you log in to a website, such as Google or Facebook, everything you do on that website (and often even beyond that website) can be traced. Gigantic platforms love gaining information about you, and because you log in to a personal account, all actions taken while using that account can be connected to each other, even when you use incognito mode.

Browser fingerprinting

Browser Fingerprinting Computer

Websites are getting more and more sophisticated each day, and some go to great lengths to identify visitors. Some have the ability to create a so-called “digital fingerprint” as you browse, even when you have adblockers or are in incognito mode. Websites barely ever tell you when they are creating a profile on you. When you visit a website that partakes in browser fingerprinting, the website sends out a request for additional information to the browser. This information can include data about the user’s operating system, the number of fonts installed, which browser extensions have been added, and many other identifying features.

These bits of information don’t reveal a lot about you by themselves. However, collectively, it’s possible to create a unique profile on almost every online visitor. This doesn’t mean the website will know your identity, but they will likely assign you a profile number and be able to recognize you whenever you return to their website, even when you use incognito mode or a hidden IP address.

If you want to check whether browser fingerprinting can be used on you, you can visit Panopticlick.

Should you be one of the people whose browser is susceptible to fingerprinting, one of the options you have is to install the Privacy Badger extension. This extension was developed by the same people as Panopticlick and can be installed on Firefox, Opera, Chrome, Brave, Iridium, and Android. Unfortunately, this will not solve the entire problem. The sad thing is that we have yet to figure out a foolproof way to counter browser fingerprinting.

Effective Ways to Browse Anonymously

As discussed above, using only the incognito mode isn’t enough to be able to surf the internet anonymously. If you wish to do this, it’s important to take extra precautions. Possible measures include:

  • Installing and using a reliable VPN.
  • Using the Tor browser.
  • Not logging in to any online platforms.
  • Using anonymous search engines such as DuckDuckGo.
  • Avoiding the creation of bookmarks.

The most important and effective way to browse anonymously is to install and use a good VPN.

Anonymous Browsing with a VPN

VPNs encrypt all your internet traffic. They change your real IP address to the IP address of the VPN server, so your real address and location are no longer visible to the websites you visit. In this way, a VPN allows you to surf more anonymously and securely, while incognito mode only ensures that your internet traffic isn’t stored on your own computer.

It’s very easy to set up a VPN connection:

  1. Get a VPN subscription with a VPN provider of your choice.
  2. Install the VPN software on your device.
  3. Launch the VPN software.
  4. Log in with the account that comes with your subscription.
  5. Turn on the VPN and select the VPN server location you wish to use.
  6. You’re now protected by a VPN. From now on, all your internet traffic is encrypted and you’ll be able to browse anonymously.

One of the best VPN providers out there is ExpressVPN. By clicking the button below, you’ll automatically be sent on to the official website of this provider. If you prefer a different VPN, we also have a wide array of VPN reviews you can consult.

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Final thoughts

The incognito mode can help you make your internet behavior less visible to other users of your computer. However, it doesn’t make you anonymous on the internet. Does this mean you can’t surf the internet safely and anonymously at all? Luckily, no. However, you won’t get far with just the incognito mode.

In order to be able to surf the internet anonymously, you need to take other precautions. We recommend the use of a VPN. Private browsing should be seen as an extra layer of local security on top of a range of other methods you can use to browse anonymously.

How Anonymous is Incognito Mode? - FAQ

Do you have a question about the incognito mode of your device? You’ll find the most common questions listed below. Simply click on a question to read the answer.

Many browsers have an incognito mode that provides its user with more anonymity. When you open the private mode, you can browse the internet without your browsing behavior and internet data being tracked by the browser. In other words: you won’t have to clear your own browsing history. However, using an incognito mode is absolutely not enough to be able to surf the internet anonymously.

The incognito mode ensures that:

  • Your browser history doesn’t keep track of anything: the websites you visit are not stored on the computer or in the browser.
  • The cookies you use while browsing will be deleted after you close your browser.
  • The information you enter in online forms is deleted after the internet session.

The incognito mode won’t hide your IP address. It only ensures local anonymity. This means that using incognito mode won’t prevent other people from seeing your internet behavior. The websites you visit still see exactly what you do and who you are.

Also, the incognito mode doesn’t work if, for example, there is parental control on your device or your computer is infected with spyware. You can read more about incognito mode and what it does right here.

Using just the incognito mode isn’t enough to enable you to surf the internet anonymously. If this is your goal, it’s important to take extra precautions. A number of actions will help:

  • Use a reliable VPN.
  • Use the Tor-browser.
  • Don’t log in on any platforms if you want to keep a session anonymous.
  • Use an anonymous search engine, such as DuckDuckGo.
  • Avoid creating bookmarks.
Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cyber security analyst and one of the founders of VPNoverview.com. Interested in the "digital identity" phenomenon, with special attention to the right to privacy and protection of personal data.

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  1. It’s only really useful for keeping websites out of your browsing history or logging into a single website on multiple accounts in the same web browser.

    • This is true, although there are some more ways in which using the incognito mode can be helpful. It can get you around paywalls and ensures that any cookies and online forms you filled in won’t be saved to your browser. Moreover, using incognito mode will keep your browser history private from anyone else using your computer.

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