Many people use their browsers’ private or incognito modes to browse the web privately. However, private browser modes don’t actually make people as private as they think. Before completely trusting your browser, find out what it can and can’t do.
What incognito mode does
Incognito/private mode helps you browse the web without storing browsing data on your browser so that it can’t be retrieved later. This means that your searches, visited pages, login details and cookies will not be saved on the device after you close your private windows.
However, any files you download or bookmarks you create will be kept. Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer all offer similar private modes.
What it does:
- Deletes cookies when you close the window;
- Keeps your browsing history empty.
What it doesn’t do:
Hide your traffic from third parties like your ISP, the government, or your network admin at your office or university;
Secure your traffic from hackers or other attacks and vulnerabilities.
Private browser modes protect you from people tracking your online activities on the computer you’re using. It’s a great tool when you share your computer with others or when using a public computer. It can also be used if a trusted friend wants to log into their accounts when on your device.
They can also be used for booking flight tickets or hotel rooms because they might get you lower prices. Because they don’t save cookies, the airline or hotel website might not know that you checked your chosen dates before and hike their prices accordingly.
How to activate incognito mode
To start browsing in incognito mode, open your browser, select “File” and then choose “New Private Window” or “New Incognito Window” (the name may vary from browser to browser). Here are the shortcuts for different browsers:
- Chrome: Control/⌘ + Shift + N
- Firefox: Control/⌘ + Shift + P
- Internet Explorer: Control + Shift + P
- Safari: ⌘ + Shift + N
Once you are done, simply close the window, and that’s it – your local browsing history is gone. You can also make your browser start in private browsing mode by default so that your online activities are never logged locally. To do this, search your browser’s settings tab.
Incognito mode: not as private as you think
Your private browsing mode only blocks your own device from recording your traffic. You can still be tracked with your IP address. Your browsing data can still be collected by your ISP, your employer, and any other third party that can track your IP address.
Google and Mozilla are completely upfront about this in their browsers. “Going incognito doesn’t hide your browsing from your employer, your Internet service provider or the websites that you visit,” Chrome users are warned each time they open a new incognito window. However, Apple and Microsoft do not bother to inform their users about these limitations.
Also, if you do log into Facebook, Amazon, or anywhere else while browsing in incognito mode, those sites are obviously going to know about it – the private mode will no longer conceal you in those cases. If you sign into one of Google’s multiple apps, Chrome will also start recording your cookies and history again, making the whole incognito thing useless.
How to actually browse privately
In addition to using incognito/private mode, you need a browser or browser extension that will protect your privacy from third parties as well.
Here are a few good options:
Firefox, with the right settings, is a good mainstream choice when it comes to security and privacy. However, it doesn’t come close to more specialized browsers;
The Tor browser is a great option for maximum privacy, but it can run a bit slow because of the multiple nodes it sends your traffic through;
Vivaldi is an interesting browser with strong security and privacy features and a high degree of customizability.
If you want to stick with your current browser, privacy extensions are the way to go. There’s a huge selection of tools you can use to make sure you truly browse securely and privately.
To complete your private browsing experience, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). It hides your real IP address and replaces it with the IP address of a remote VPN server, making it impossible to track you via IP address alone. It also encrypts your traffic, protecting your browsing habits from your ISP and other third parties. NordVPN, for example, uses military-grade encryption and keeps no logs of your online activities.