What is incognito mode, and is it safe?

Incognito windows (called Private Browsing in Firefox) are a great feature of modern browsers that will help you avoid some low-level tracking techniques. However, they are not an anonymity tool.

You’re probably already familiar with the concept: You can open a new private, or ”incognito,” window in your browser to search for things online that you don’t want your browser history to record.

Almost all browsers have a private browsing window feature. These incognito windows are a great feature of modern browsers that will help you avoid some low-level tracking techniques. However, they don’t hide everything, and confusion of incognito mode has sparked plenty of controversy.

What is incognito mode (or private mode browsing)?

Depending on your browser, the feature is usually called either incognito mode or private browsing. It is a browser window that will not save your online activity, including your Google searches, sites you’ve visited, passwords, and any cookies. Once you close a private window, your browsing session is cleared without a trace on your device. This means anyone sharing your computer won’t be able to tell what you’ve looked at on your browser.

How does incognito mode work?

When you browse in a normal window, your web browser stores data about your activity. This ranges from the sites you visit and sign-ins on various accounts to a history of your downloads and cached versions of websites you’ve visited before. Having this information could be convenient, as you can avoid having to log in to websites over and over again and you can easily find web pages you’d visited earlier. But if someone else uses your computer, they might be able to use your logged-in email and know what you’ve been searching for.

When you browse in a private window (such as with incognito mode), this problem disappears, as a private browser doesn’t store any of that information.

How to use private mode windows on web browsers

How to use private browsing on Safari

On your desktop

  1. Open the Safari browser
  2. Go to File and select New Private Window, or use the shortcuts Shift+Command+N or  Ctrl+Shift+N.

Your browser should look something like this:

On your mobile device

  1. Open your Safari app
  2. Tap on the Tab button on the bottom-right corner
  3. Tap Private
  4. Tap Done to start browsing privately on the app

How to use a private browsing on Firefox

On your desktop

  1. Open the Firefox browser
  2. Go to File and select New Private Window, or use the shortcut Ctrl+Shift+P on Windows (Shift+Command+P on Mac)

You’ll get a private window that looks like this:

On your mobile device

  1. Open up the Firefox app
  2. Tap on the Tab button
  3. Tap on the mask icon at the top to start browsing privately

How to use incognito mode on Google Chrome

On your desktop

  1. Open up your Google Chrome browser
  2. Go to File and select New Incognito Window. Alternatively, open incognito mode on Chrome with the shortcut Ctrl+Shift+N or Command+Shift+N.Your browser window should look something like this:

On your mobile device

  1. Open your Chrome app
  2. Go to your Tabs and select the Icon showing the fedora hat and glasses
  3. Click the “+” icon to create a new tab to start browsing incognito

How to use a private window on Brave

On your desktop

  1. Open your Brave browser
  2. Go to File and select New Private Window, or use the shortcut Ctrl+Shift+N or Command+Shift+N.

Your browser window should look something like this:

On your mobile device

  1. Open your Brave app
  2. Tap on the Tab button
  3. Tap on Private on the bottom-left corner and select the “+” icon to open a new private browser window.

Is incognito mode safe?

Not completely. Chrome’s incognito window clearly states that your browser won’t save your browsing history, cookies and site data, and information entered in forms, but downloads, bookmarks and reading list items will be saved. Your activity might still be visible to websites you visit, your employer or school, and your internet service provider.

All this makes it great for hiding your browsing history from anyone else with access to your devices, but not much else.

We break down just how safe private browsing is for the average user.

1. Does private mode browsing prevent cookies from identifying you?

Yes it does. 

Normally when you visit a website, embedded scripts will place a small file called a cookie on your computer. This cookie can, when you visit the site again, be read by the site and used to identify you.

This can be useful, as it allows you to stay logged in even after your computer is rebooted and quickly lets you share news on any social media accounts.

However, cookies also let social media companies (and the NSA) track you across sites. For example, social media sites let news organizations embed snippets of code that show how often an article has been shared.

These snippets also feedback information about which sites you’ve visited and which articles you’ve been reading. This gathered data can be used to feed you targeted advertisements or identify your religious, political, or sexual preferences.

Cookie tracking isn’t a problem for you if you use incognito mode or private browsing, but if you don’t want cookies tracking you on your normal browser window either, there are a couple more things you can do.

  1. Disable third-party cookies and consider deleting cookies every time you restart your browser
  2. Install Privacy Badger to see which cookies a site uses, then block them where appropriate

2. Does incognito mode help protect against browser fingerprinting?

Yes it does. 

Cookies might still be the most popular method for collecting information online, but browser fingerprinting has become increasingly popular.

With browser fingerprinting, the website you visit will gather information about your browser, the fonts you have installed, and the add-ons or browser extensions you use. This information could be enough to detect you, even if you’re careful about your privacy.

While you can’t completely stop websites from gathering your fingerprint, you can still reduce the amount of information websites can obtain from fingerprinting by going incognito and using a private browser window. Two more tips:

  1. Run a popular browser that uses no default fonts or extensions, like the Tor Browser
  2. Be careful with extensions, as some extensions are detectable by the sites you visit. The ExpressVPN browser extension is safe to use even in incognito mode.

3. Does private browsing stop family members from seeing your browsing history?

Yes. If somebody else, like a family member or flatmate, has access to your computer, an incognito window can help you hide certain activities (like buying a birthday present) from them. In fact, it is probably a much better option than deleting your history altogether, which can be more tedious.

4. Does incognito mode hide your IP address?

No, private browsing does not help mask your IP address. Your internet service provider (ISP) can still collect your browsing activity linked to your IP address, and it can in theory hand it over to a third party if necessary. A VPN replaces your IP address with a different one shared by many users, so your ISP can’t track your activity.

5. Does private mode browsing stop your ISP from tracking your DNS records?

No. Every time you visit a website, your browser has to obtain the site’s IP address. The browser will ask a DNS server “what is the IP address of expressvpn.com.” The DNS server then responds with the correct answer, allowing you to connect to the website.

However, the DNS server may record your queries and sell them to advertisers or pass them on to law enforcement.

By default, your DNS service is supplied by your ISP, but it can be changed to one maintained by Google. There are also free DNS services that promise not to pass on your information, such as OpenNIC.

VPN providers like ExpressVPN also maintain their own DNS service, which comes included with a VPN subscription. ExpressVPN does not keep logs and does not pass on any information to advertisers.

Read more: 5 ways to keep your browsing history hidden from ISPs

6. Does private browsing stop work or school from tracking you?

No. If you use public Wi-Fi or connect to your school or work network, the administrator can see every site you visit. For sites not encrypted with HTTPS, they are even able to see the contents of the site and all information you exchange with it.

Incognito windows will not protect your online browsing history from system admins. A VPN will protect your browsing history from your network administrator. Be careful, though. If the computer you are using is not yours (such as a computer at school or work). The owner of these devices may have installed other tracking software that will collect information even if you use a VPN or Tor.

Bonus tip: Use separate browsers or plug-ins

Browser compartmentalization is an idea that can be an attractive way for power users to get more granularity from browser settings.

For example, a user could configure one browser to accept and remember cookies for regularly visited sites, and another for searching (DuckDuckGo is a good choice), reading, and other browsing.

Read more: Ranked: Best web browsers for security and privacy

This separate browser, unlike an incognito window, can be configured to remember just enough, for example the browsing and search history, but no site cookies or connections to third-party advertising networks.

Clever ways to configure your browser as a privacy power user. Simply navigate to settings in your favorite browser and use the search bar to customize your tools. Here are some ideas that we use:

Set DuckDuckGo as your default search engine

  • Turn off auto-fill
  • Opt out of the “prediction service” that auto-completes your searches
  • Send “Do Not Track” requests
  • Don’t allow sites to check if payment methods are saved
  • Do not use a prediction service to load pages more quickly
  • Set some defaults under “Site Settings”
    • Don’t allow cookies by default
    • Block third-party cookies
    • Ask before sending Location, or allowing camera or microphone access
    • Never allow notifications
    • Don’t allow background sync
    • Don’t allow sites to become default handlers
    • Create exceptions for specific sites, e.g, to allow cookies for a trusted site to function

In short, incognito mode isn’t so incognito after all

Admittedly, there are some great reasons to use incognito mode.

  • You can hide your browsing history from others using your computer
  • You can hide browsing habits from advertisers
  • You can avoid browser fingerprinting

But be sure to make use of the incognito window when it makes sense to! Add a VPN to your privacy arsenal to increase your data privacy when browsing online.

Safe browsing! 

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Lexie is the blog's resident tech expert and gets excited about empowerment through technology, space travel, and pancakes with blueberries.