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Incognito mode: How anonymous does it make you?

Last edited: September 19, 2019
Reading time: 12 minutes, 13 seconds

It’s no secret that your online activities can easily be tracked by many different parties, including your internet service provider (ISP). Using a VPN is an extremely effective way to conceal your identity online. But what if you aren’t ready to invest in a VPN service just yet? Many users resort to activating incognito mode when browsing the web to help keep their sessions private. However, incognito mode is not nearly as private as many users think. In this article, we’re going to discuss how incognito mode works and what its advantages and limitations are when it comes to private internet browsing.

You can probably already surmise that incognito mode isn’t nearly as private as you may wish. If you truly want to remain anonymous, you are much better off using a VPN. The primary difference between the two is that all your internet traffic will be encrypted when you use a VPN. Incognito mode does not encrypt your internet traffic; it only makes sure your internet activity isn’t saved on your device. One of the best VPN providers out there is ExpressVPN. If you prefer a different VPN, we also have a wide array of VPN reviews.

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What is incognito mode?

Incognito mode is essentially a way to delete your browsing and search history along with tracking cookies following an online session. Also known as private browsing, incognito mode is a feature offered by most web browsers. When activated, it opens a private browsing window that you can use to surf the web. It then deletes your browsing history at the end of your session. While this is a useful feature, it’s far from an optimal way to browse the web anonymously.

When you browse the internet without incognito mode, your browser stores information such as website URLs, form information, and cookies. Cookies are files that websites embed into browsers. These cookies can have many different functions. For example, some cookies let you visit password-protected sites without having to log in each time. Some keep track of items in your online shopping cart or give advertisers a way to monitor your online activities. Whenever you return to a webpage that uses cookies, this stored data is sent back to the server, which recognizes you and adjusts the page to fit your previous browsing behavior.

When you use incognito mode, all cookies are deleted at the end of your session, along with your browsing history. This means the URLs of the sites you visited won’t show up in your browser’s history tab, and you’re less likely to be tracked by advertisers.

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.

Local versus online anonymity

When talking about anonymous browsing, it’s important to make a distinction between local and online anonymity. 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 anonimity means your data isn’t stored on your device while online anonimity means it isn’t tracked by online actors. For a good overview of parties that might be following you online, take a look at our article on tracking online behavior.

To conclude, incognito mode is a good tool for protecting your local anonymity, as 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.

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.

What can incognito mode do?

Incognito mode is primarily useful for keeping your online activities private from other users of the same device. That said, there are a number of ways you can use incognito mode to your advantage. Here are the main benefits of private browsing:

  • It keeps your search history private
  • It doesn’t store any cookies after your session
  • It doesn’t store any online forms
  • It maintains your privacy on public PCs
  • It helps you get around paywalls

Keeping your search history private

Most users opt to browse in private mode because they want to conceal their search history. Incognito mode has a bit of a questionable reputation: it suggests that users have something bad to hide from others. However, there are many perfectly legitimate reasons why users may want to delete their search history. For example, you might be researching a particular medical condition online and would rather not have other users know about it. Or, if you are looking for a new job, incognito mode prevents job sites from appearing in your search history. For whatever reason you might want to keep your search history private, incognito mode is a good way to do it.

Deleting cookies after your session

Cookies on screenYou may not be aware of this, but cookies collect all sorts of data about you while you’re browsing. Cookies can track the websites you visit, the Google search terms you use, what kind of products you purchase, your location, the time you spend on certain sections of a website, which advertisements you’ve seen right before buying something, and much more. This way, advertising companies can create and refine a personal profile on you. When you use incognito mode, none of these cookies are saved. As a result, the next time you surf to asos.com, perhaps to find a nice pair of shoes or a shirt, it will appear as if you’re a completely new visitor.

Deleting any online forms after your session

As you browse the web, you’re often prompted to fill out online forms. A website might ask you to provide a username, password, your address, your personal preferences, and so on. None of the forms you fill out while using incognito mode are stored to your device. This is somewhat less convenient when you return to a form and have to enter all this information again, but it does provide you with a degree of privacy. 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.

Maintaining your privacy on public PCs

Given our frequent use of tablets, smartphones and other devices, it’s far less common nowadays to need to use a public PC to check your email or access your accounts. However, should you ever need to do so, you’ll want to turn on incognito mode. This is because public PCs often don’t erase your browsing history once you finish your session. Using incognito mode can prevent other users from accessing your website’s login page or other sensitive information.

Getting 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’ll appear to be a new visitor and have a new batch of free articles to access.

What can’t incognito mode do?

Although incognito mode can come in quite handy, it also lacks in some important ways. We’ll be telling you all about the things incognito mode can’t do for you in this section.

  • It doesn’t hide your IP address
  • It doesn’t prevent third party tracking
  • It doesn’t stop browser Fingerprinting

Hiding your IP address

Incognito mode doesn’t hide your IP address. Your Internet Protocol (IP) address is an identification and localization tool. It tells other who and where you are. Every device that has access to the internet has an IP address. This is like a digital home address, except for your router or computer. When you visit a website, you send a request for information (about the website) to its server. The server sends this data to your IP address, the same way a delivery guy from IKEA would deliver your newly ordered bookcase to your doorstep.

It’s possible to trace someone’s online activity because every request on the internet is linked to an IP address. Incognito mode doesn’t hide your IP address. As such, your online activities can still be traced. Having your online activities traced can cause a number of privacy concerns. In order to conceal your online behavior, you have to hide or alter your IP address.

Third-party tracking

Although incognito mode erases your tracking cookies after each session, it doesn’t prevent your ISP or third parties from tracking you in other ways. Incognito mode is ultimately designed to keep your browsing session private from other people who use your device, not to protect your data. Private browsing is a very basic security feature and doesn’t offer an advanced degree of protection. Your IP address is still entirely visible when you browse in private mode. This means your ISP can track the websites you visit and the files you download. Other parties, including the government, websites you visit, and your employer, can track you as well – even when you use incognito mode. Moreover, if you access the internet via an insecure connection, incognito mode won’t protect you against hackers aiming to steal your sensitive information.

Even some of the software on your computer can bypass incognito mode. This includes parental monitoring software as well as spyware and other types of malware. If your device has been infected with a keylogger, for example, incognito mode won’t do you any good. Moreover, incognito mode also won’t delete any bookmarks you create in your browser.

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 never tell you when they are in the process of creating a profile on you, but it happens a lot. The process goes as follows: when you visit a website, 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. With all this data, the website is able to create a profile that is unique to your settings.

These bits of information don’t reveal a lot about you by themselves. However, collectively, it’s possible to create a unique profile on every online visitor, even when using incognito mode. 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. There, they can keep track of what you’re doing.

If you want to check whether browser fingerprinting can be used on you, you can visit Panopticlick. It just takes a few clicks to find out how unique your settings are. 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.

Final thoughts

Although incognito mode can give you more privacy when browsing the internet, it’s important for users to understand the limitations of this privacy feature. It may keep your browsing history private, but it’s not a reliable way to protect your anonymity online. While it can prevent other users from seeing your online activity on your device or computer, it doesn’t conceal your IP address or prevent third parties from seeing your online activities. If you truly want to protect your privacy, the best option is to invest in a reputable VPN service. However, if you’re simply looking to delete your browsing data and tracking cookies, incognito mode is a helpful tool for accomplishing those tasks. Some other methods for ensuring your online anonymity include:

  • Installing and using a reputable VPN
  • Using the Tor browser
  • Not logging into any websites
  • Using anonymous search engines
  • Avoiding the creation of bookmarks
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