All web browsers come with a private browsing mode - an Incognito mode, as it's often called. Whenever you want some privacy online, switching this on is a no-brainer.
Except it turns out that there are some pretty major misconceptions about what it actually does. A lot of people massively over-estimate its powers.
So do you know what Incognito mode is for, and what it will or will not protect you against? Let's take a look.
What is Incognito Mode?
All browsers come with support for private browsing. In Chrome it's called Incognito mode; in Edge, it's InPrivate mode; and in Safari and Firefox, it's plain old Private Browsing. You can access it via the File menu, or by using the Ctrl + Shift + N keyboard shortcut. You can get it on your phone, too.
When you switch to Incognito mode, you launch a privacy-focused browser window. It helps you cover your tracks online, but only to a certain extent.
Incognito mode still gives you access to your bookmarks and browser settings, but it does not access or save cookies, nor does it save your browsing history or anything you type into web forms.
Cookies are small text files that websites store on your computer that can you either help you - or help them. They save any settings you've changed on a site and keep you logged in to your favourite services. Private browsing, then, means you'll be logged out of all your favourite sites. This is an inconvenience in some cases, but it also makes it harder for the likes of Google and Facebook to see where you're going online.
The other thing that gets deleted when you shut the window is your recent browsing history. In fact, this isn't saved at all, beyond allowing you to hit the Back button to return to your previous page. This ensures that anyone who shares your computer will not be able to see what sites you've visited, or what you've been searching for.
What Incognito mode doesn't do
Incognito mode is great for stopping advertisers and the tech giants from following you around the web, and it ensures privacy on your computer itself. But that's as far as it goes.
When you're in private browsing mode, your ISP can still see and log the sites you visit.
Websites themselves can also see your IP address, the number that identifies your computer on the internet. And although it cannot identify you personally from this (not easily, anyway) it can see certain important information, such as your location.
There's also a growing issue with something called "fingerprinting". This is where sites use the various bit of information they routinely access when you connect to them, like your browser and device settings, to generate a unique ID for you that is independent of cookies and user accounts. It makes it even easier to identify you online.
And that's not all. If you've got any extensions set up on your browser, they might not notice your switch to private mode. They might still be able to track your online activities.
So if you've been using Incognito mode in the belief that it helps keep you anonymous online, you're wrong. It gives you a basic level of privacy, but that's all. If you want to be truly anonymous you need to use it in conjunction with a VPN, which encrypts your internet traffic so that no other body, including your broadband provider, can see it.
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