Every day, millions of people use Google Chrome, which accounts for 67% of the worldwide browser market. Out of those millions of people, a fair portion use incognito mode in an attempt to maintain their privacy and stay safe on the web.
But incognito mode isn’t as safe as you might think. While it does offer some minimal degree of privacy, it is in no way a shield against snoopers, nor is it an invisibility cloak. Even when using incognito mode, your browsing activity is still available to your internet service provider (ISP) and anyone else who has a bit of tech know-how.
Google Chrome isn’t the only browser that offers incognito mode. Today, almost all browsers offer a similar feature, and all are similarly insecure. If you want to stay safe on the web, you need to take extra steps.
Here, we’re going to cover what incognito mode and private browsing does, and what it doesn’t do. Then, we’ll provide some ways to actually keep yourself safe on the web.
What Incognito Mode Actually Does
When you switch on incognito mode (or Private Browsing in Firefox, etc.), what you’re really doing is telling Chrome not to save your browsing history, cookies, and cache for the duration of your browsing session. Essentially, you’re telling Chrome not to remember what you’re about to do, but that doesn’t mean that no one will save your information.
This can be very useful in protecting your data from other people with physical access to your computer, like family members and friends. For example, if you wanted to search for a surprise getaway for your spouse, it’s a good idea to turn on incognito mode. That way, your past searches for “tickets to Honolulu” won’t show up when your spouse hops on the computer and starts typing another search term that starts with the letter “t.”
It’s also extremely helpful for when you’re borrowing someone else’s computer or using a shared computer, like in a library, at work, etc. When you put on incognito mode before logging into a website, you can rest assured that your browsing data and login info won’t be saved — by Chrome, that is. There’s always the risk of keyloggers or other malware logging your information.
Plus, when you use incognito mode, you’re not just telling Chrome not to save your new info, you’re also telling it to temporarily forget your current history in the incognito window. This means that you can log into two separate accounts on the same website at once.
For example, you can log into Instagram in a regular Chrome window, and then open a new incognito window and log into a second account. Normally, you couldn’t do this. But incognito mode essentially separates that window from your other browsing activity.
Additionally, you can use incognito mode when searching for airline tickets as some companies will change prices based on your search history. Since incognito mode “hides” your search history for the session, you can compare your incognito prices to your regular prices.
In short, incognito mode is useful when you don’t want your browsing history or search history to be viewable by other people with physical access to your computer. It can also help when you need to log in to multiple accounts or check websites that may change based on your browsing history or cookies.
But if you actually want to stay safe and maintain your privacy online, you need to take additional security measures.
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What Incognito Mode Does Not Do
Incognito mode only prevents your data from being saved in Chrome (or another browser) on the computer you’re using (assuming there aren’t any keyloggers or other types of malware). It does not prevent other parties, like your ISP, websites, or cyber criminals using packet sniffing tools, from viewing what you’re doing.
Think of it like this: imagine you’re in a room with two other people, and you have a serum that makes someone forget everything they hear and do over the next two hours. You give one person the serum and tell them a secret. In two hours, they won’t remember anything, so your secret’s safe with them.
But wait — there was still another person in the room listening in on your conversation, and they didn’t get the serum. Now, there’s still someone out there who has your secret, and they can do whatever they want with it.
This is the problem with incognito mode: it will make Chrome forget what you tell it, but there are still other people in the metaphorical room with you. There’s your ISP and the websites you visit, and if you’re in a public place, there may also be cyber criminals using packet sniffing tools to view all the information you send.
All those other parties can still see what you’re doing on Chrome without any issue. If you log into Facebook from an incognito tab, your ISP will know what you did, and Facebook will still have access to some of your data.
Even though your browsing history and cookies will be deleted once you close out of the incognito window, your data can still be traced back to you. These days, websites have access to sophisticated tools, like browser fingerprinting, that allow them to link your activity to your real identity even when you’re using incognito mode.
Keep in mind that you need to be especially careful when you’re using the internet at work or school. Many schools and companies have additional tracking software that allows them to see what you’re doing, no matter whether you’re using incognito mode or not. For this reason, you shouldn’t do anything you want to keep private on a work or school computer.
How Can I Actually Browse Privately?
Safe internet browsing is a bit of a rabbit hole — you can end up going pretty far down as there are very few ways to completely guarantee safety. Backdoors and vulnerabilities are being discovered every day, so there is always some risk every time you surf the web.
However, even though you can’t totally eliminate the risk of crashing your car, you can still wear your seatbelt. When you’re browsing the web, there are two things you can use to help you stay as safe as possible: using a VPN and a password manager.
A VPN, or virtual private network, is a piece of software that obscures your IP address (think of it like your ID card) from your ISP and the websites you visit. When you fire up a VPN, your traffic is redirected through a secure, encrypted connection on a separate server. Essentially, your ISP will see that you’ve connected to a VPN, but everything after that will be private.
When you visit a website, your IP address will show up as your VPN’s IP, not your own. This prevents websites from seeing who you are in most cases. Additionally, since your data is encrypted through the VPN, you can protect yourself from packet sniffers when using your computer on public WiFi.
Additionally, you can also use a password manager, like Keeper. Password managers allow you to securely store your passwords so you don’t forget them. They can also generate strong passwords with the click of a button, save them securely, and quickly input them into websites with autofill. This means that you don’t have to remember tons of long and complicated passwords, making it easy to avoid reusing the same, weak passwords over and over again.
The internet is a treacherous place, and incognito mode doesn’t do much to protect you. While it’s useful for keeping your browsing history safe from friends, family, and coworkers, incognito mode doesn’t prevent your data from being openly broadcast to the world wide web.
If you want to stay safe on the web, the best thing you can do is invest in a VPN and a password manager like Keeper. The combination of the two will keep your identity safe and greatly improve your password habits, which means your accounts will be much more difficult to breach.