Does the Incognito Mode Really Work to Keep Your Browsing Private?
Chrome calls it Incognito Mode. Firefox and Opera call it Private Browsing. Edge has gone for Browsing InPrivate.
What do these browsing modes do?
It seems that a lot of people can't answer this question correctly. In a recent survey, scientists from the University of Chicago and the Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany wanted to find out what regular users think about and how they use the browsers' private browsing modes. Here are some of the highlights:
- 56% of the participants thought that if they log in to their Google accounts while they're browsing in Incognito mode, their search history won't be recorded anywhere.
- 47% thought that if they bookmark a website while they're browsing Incognito, it won't show up in the browser's regular mode.
- 40% of the participants thought that websites can't see their location when they're in Incognito mode.
- 27% thought that Incognito mode gives them better protection against malware.
- 25% thought that Incognito mode obscures and hides their public IP address
These figures are nothing short of worrying because they show that users aren't fully aware of what browsers' private modes do and don't do to protect their privacy.
What Incognito mode can do to protect your privacy
When you're surfing the Internet in the default mode, your browser saves some information on the hard drive of your PC. This information includes your browsing history, the data you enter into online forms, and cookies that some websites send to you.
The Incognito or Private mode does little more than limit the amount of data that is locally saved. Your browsing history, for example, is cleared the moment you stop the Incognito browsing session. Hence, if you visit things-i-shouldnt-be-looking-at.com while you're in Incognito mode, the next time you type "things" in the address bar, the website won't show up as a suggestion. It won't be available in the history, either.
The cookies every website saves to your PC in Incognito mode will be deleted as well, and the browser won't remember the information you've filled in an online registration form while you're in Incognito mode.
In other words, when your mom or an FBI agent sits on your computer, they won't be able to see what you looked at while you were using Incognito mode. What they will be able to see, however, are the bookmarks and files you downloaded.
Bear in mind, however, that we're talking about the Internet – a vast network of electronic machines. Incognito mode can't do anything about the information that is saved on all these machines.
What Incognito mode can't do to protect your privacy
When you want to visit a website, you type a domain name into the address bar of your browser, and your computer, using your public IP address, sends a request to a server that hosts the website you want to view. This request goes through a number of other servers, switches, and hubs. That's what happens in simple terms, anyway.
The upshot is, your request is handled by many different parties who can see it. The browser's incognito mode can't do anything about it. As a result, your ISP or your employer, for example, can learn what you've been looking at despite the private browsing feature.
Another thing people seem to miss is the fact that logging in to your Google account in Incognito mode is the same as logging in to your Google account in the browser's default mode. Google will still record your search history and the rest of your interactions with its services (like the YouTube videos you watch).
The final misconception is that Incognito mode can somehow hide your public IP or protect you from malware. In all fairness, Opera's private browsing comes with VPN functionality built-in in the latest versions, and Firefox does offer a Do Not Track feature. These two could help you achieve some level of anonymity, but they'll do nothing to protect you from malware.
Can you trust your browser's Incognito mode?
If you don't want too many traces of the websites you visit on your PC, yes, your browser's private or Incognito mode will do the job. Just be careful with what you download or save for future viewing.
If you want to surf the web anonymously, it won't be of much help. There are dedicated VPN applications, and there's also the Tor browser which makes use of a completely different system to hide who you really are and what you're looking at.