When you surf normally, also called inprivate browsing, your browser stores several things from your searches. The browser stores cookies, search history and more.
There are countless reasons why you might want to keep the websites you visit secret. For example, you may be planning a holiday for your best friend, seeking information that is not supposed to be accessible in your country or simply trying to minimise what advertisers know about you and your internet habits
In these situations, many people enable their browsers, such as Google Chrome, inognito or private browsing mode so that they can avoid the browser saving their search history. The names of these features suggest that they will make you and your behaviour invisible on the web so that you cannot be traced by any person, employer, advertiser or government.
But they don't quite work like that.
Incognito and private browsing modes can be useful, but they don't hide your activity from everyone. If you want as much control over your personal data as possible, it's important to know what these modes hide and from whom they hide it. Once you know their limitations, you can activate them at a time that makes the most sense for you, and take other measures to increase your privacy when necessary.
How to open a private window in different browsers
There are different browsers, and almost all browsers have their own way of opening a private tab.
How to be incognito in Google Chrome:
- Open Chrome.
- Press 'Ctrl+Shift+N' or click on the three dots at the top right of the homepage and select 'New incognito window'.
How to be incognito in Internet Explorer:
- Press 'Ctrl+Shift+P'.
How to be incognito in Firefox:
- Open a new window.
- Click on the three horizontal lines in the top right corner and select 'New private window'.
How to be incognito in Safari:
- Open Safari.
- Select 'File' from the toolbar at the top of the screen and click 'New Private Window'.
What incognito and private browsing mode can
Different browsers have different settings, but incognito and private browsing are usually split into independent sessions. When you want to surf incognito and open a private browsing window, the session starts. The session continues if you open a new private window, and only ends when all tabs are closed.
At the end of the session, most browsers will delete the following data from your device:
- Your browsing history
- Cookies and site data
- Information you have entered in forms
Now that we've covered the basics, we can look at when incognito and private browsing modes can be useful, and why they don't make you completely anonymous.
When incognito and private browsing modes can be useful
There are a few reasons why you might want to use an incognito or private browsing mode. The first is to hide part of your browsing history from other people using the same device.
For example, let's say you have a family computer and you want to throw a birthday party for one of your kids as a surprise. To make it extra special, you want to order a giant cake and some colorful decorations for your home. That means, you need to do a little secret internet shopping.
Here's the problem: all the web pages you visit are recorded in your browsing history. They may then pop up as auto-complete suggestions the next time your child uses the family computer. But if you turn on your browser's incognito or private browsing mode, your sneaky purchases are deleted at the end of the session, making it easier to keep your little party secret.
Another reason to use incognito and private browsing modes is to quickly switch between your accounts. By default, most privacy settings will log you out of websites like YouTube, Reddit and eBay. This can be an advantage if you have multiple accounts for some of these platforms.
For example, let's say you've logged into Reddit with your 'main' account in a 'normal' browser window. Instead of logging out, you can open a private window and immediately log in with one of your alternate accounts. At the end of the session, you don't need to log out and log back in to your 'main' account - you can just switch back to the 'normal' browser window.
What incognito and private browsing modes can't
It's important to remember that incognito and private browsing modes only delete data from your device. This means that they do not:
- Hide your IP address. So a website may still know your general location.
- Shifts the requests or data packets you send out through your Internet Service Provider (ISP). This means your ISP can monitor your browsing habits, whether or not you use a private window.
- Ensures that your browsing history is skjult for whoever runs your institutional or office network. There's a good chance they can still find out what you're doing during a private browsing session.
- Delete any files you download while surfing incognito. You'll have to do that yourself.
- Remove any bookmarks you made during the session. Again, it's up to you to remove them.
- Affects any data you share while logged into services. For example, if you log in to YouTube while in a private browser window, the platform will remember everything you've watched and searched for.
- Delete any data that wasn't part of your private browsing session. This means that it does not go back and delete all your browsing history from previous sessions that did not use an incognito or private browsing mode.
- Making it easier to find cheap flights and hotels. Online prices change all the time and are not affected by whether you are using an incognito or private browsing mode.
Other considerations while using incognito and private browsing modes
It may sound obvious, but it's important to remember that incognito and private browsing modes don't physically change or blur what's on your screen. So if you're sitting in a busy coffee shop, the person next to you will still be able to see the websites in the browser you're visiting. Similarly, incognito and private browsing modes won't save you from a nosy colleague who likes to look over your shoulder in the office.
Nor are incognito and private modes a perfect defence against cybercriminals. For example, if a hacker found a way to install malware on your device or some other malicious software that records all your keystrokes, they could still track which websites you visited during private browsing sessions.
Use the right tools when surfing incognito
If you really want to regain your privacy online, consider some extra steps. For example, a virtual private network (VPN) can protect your internet traffic on your computer and help you access geo-restricted content.
There's also The Onion Router (Tor), an open source project that hides your identity by routing your online activity through a series of "relays" and "nodes".
There are also a number of smaller changes you can make to reduce your digital footprint, like switching to a private browser, email provider or search engine, as well as reviewing the permissions you've given to apps on your phone.
Does that mean it doesn't matter that you use incognito mode? Not at all. It's handy and effective when you want to protect your history on the internet from other people using the same computer. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking that these modes are an all-powerful invisibility cloak that enables you to avoid unsafe browsing and protects your personal information from anyone and everyone.
About the author
Sofie Meyer is a copywriter and phishing aficionado here at Moxso. She has a master´s degree in Danish and a great interest in cybercrime, which resulted in a master thesis project on phishing.