You are not very incognito in incognito mode

If you are concerned about your online privacy, you should know what incognito mode does and doesn't do to protect it.

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Modern browsers offer an increased privacy option that goes by a number of different names: Incognito Mode in Chrome, Private Browsing in Firefox and Opera, InPrivate Browsing in Internet Explorer and Microsoft Edge, and Private Window in Safari. Since all of these do more or less the same thing, so I’ll just use Chrome’s “Incognito Mode” moniker as shorthand to refer to all of them.

When you open an incognito window in Chrome, the most popular browser choice, there is a description that explains the limits of what is protected from prying eyes. Judging from a number of conversations I’ve had, this description is often ignored. A surprisingly high percentage of people mistakenly think that going incognito hides their activity from all prying eyes. As Google’s description of incognito mode makes clear, this is not the case:

Pages you view in incognito tabs won’t stick around in your browser’s history, cookie store, or search history after you’ve closed all of your incognito tabs. Any files you download or bookmarks you create will be kept.

However, you aren’t invisible. Going incognito doesn’t hide your browsing from your employer, your internet service provider, or the websites you visit.”

There are two types of privacy to consider: local privacy and online privacy. Only your local privacy, what people can see on the computer where your browsing takes place, is effected by switching to incognito mode. Your online privacy is not impacted in any way.

Basically, incognito mode just means that the browser doesn't save cookies, temporary internet files or your browsing history when you are in incognito mode. The main thing it does is hide your browsing history from other people who use the same computer. Not all of reasons someone might want to do this are nefarious; I used incognito mode when I was shopping for Christmas presents on a shared computer this past year, and successfully managed to keep the gifts I searched for and purchased a secret.

There are other uses for incognito mode apart from keeping your browsing history secure from prying eyes. For example, you can be logged into your main Google account, then open an Incognito Window and use it log into a separate or secondary Google account at the same time. The same is true for other accounts that you might not want tracking your every online move, such as Facebook. 

Many users have a mistaken understanding about the limits of what incognito mode can do. Despite the clear warnings offered when opening an incognito tab, some still think that it hides their online activity from everyone, including their ISP or employer, when this is obviously not the case. Perhaps it is the “spy in a fedora” icon that Google uses for incognito mode leads some to this mistaken conclusion, but it does absolutely nothing to keep your ISP or employer from seeing exactly what you are doing online, and this mistake could potentially lead to some embarrassing conversations at the office.

In addition, software that is installed on your computer can also circumvent the privacy protections of going incognito. Parental monitoring software is generally unaffected by incognito mode, for example. Spyware that is installed on a computer may also continue to collect information despite the use of incognito mode. 

Incognito mode and other private browsing modes are useful and they do provide a real level of local privacy protection that is easy to take advantage of. As long as users are aware of the limitations and do not expect a magic bullet that completely hides their online activity, it can be a useful tool that is simple to use.

But if you want real online privacy, you are going to have take some extra steps

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