Privacy

How does incognito mode work?

If you seek a bit of privacy online, you might choose to go “incognito” by activating the private browsing modes offered by the major web browsers.

Is extra protection necessary? Web-browsing creates exposure. You can see a lot of information from others, but they also can gather certain pieces of data about you simply from your browsing activity.

You might search the web for a beach vacation, for instance. Search engines can track and gather your search history and browsing data, and then sell it to advertisers who create buyer profiles and personalized ads.

That’s where incognito mode — or private mode — comes in.

What is incognito mode?

Incognito mode is private browsing that doesn’t leave as many tracks. It can erase temporary data that is captured by the PC or device you’re using.

While all privacy modes aren’t the same, most private browser settings won’t retain your cookies, browsing history, search records, passwords, or personally identifiable information, also known as PII)

Deleting cookies — information saved on your web browser — is a great first step toward maintaining your privacy.

Cookies have several uses, including these.

  • They collect information about the pages you view and your website activities.
  • They enable sites to recognize you by remembering your ID and preferences.
  • They customize your browsing experience and send you targeted ads.

But does activating incognito mode and being able to delete temporary data like cookies protect your privacy? Not as much as you might hope.

Here’s why. Your search history may be erased from your own device, but your Internet Service Provider (ISP), the websites you’ve visited, the government, and other third parties can still track you with your IP address.

Still, there are benefits to surfing the web in incognito mode. To decide if private browsing is right for you, consider what it can and cannot do for you.

What browsers have incognito mode?

Four of the most recognizable web browsers have a standard private browsing (incognito) feature. Here’s a brief look at each of them.

Google Chrome

Google Chrome’s “Incognito Mode” was designed to make sharing computers easier in places like the office where one device could have multiple users. With Incognito Mode enabled, the Chrome browser won’t save the browsing history, cookies, site data, or information entered on forms by users. But it will keep files you download and bookmarks. The same is true when using Chrome’s Incognito Mode to open a new window on an Android phone.

Microsoft Internet Explorer and Edge

Once enabled, Microsoft’s “InPrivate” browsing window provides similar protections as other browsers. However, even after you close the InPrivate window, Microsoft will save files you download along with bookmarks saved on your computer. The browser’s incognito mode also will disable toolbars and extensions.

Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla’s “Private Browsing” mode is similar to other incognito modes but offers additional tracking protection. This helps stop third parties from gathering your browsing history. You can activate this tracking in your private window, marked with a purple band across it.

Apple Safari

Safari’s “Private” window similarly removes temporary files such as browsing history, form data, and cookies when you close the incognito window. It also deletes temporary files. When private browsing is activated in a new incognito window, the location bar will be grayed-out and a band at the top of the window will show you’re in private browsing mode.

How do you turn incognito mode on?

To activate incognito mode, open your browser, select “file,” and then select the new private/incognito window. When you’re done, close the window.

There also are keyboard shortcuts for the four major browsers. Here’s how they work.

  • Chrome: Press Control + Shift + N in Windows and Command + Shift + N for Mac.
  • Firefox: Press Control + Shift + N. 
  • Internet Explorer: Press Control + Shift + P. 
  • Safari: Press Control symbol + Shift + N.

You’ll know you’re in private browsing mode when you see the “man-in-a-hat” icon in the upper-left corner in Windows, and in the upper-right corner for Mac.

Pros and cons of incognito mode

Incognito mode doesn’t give you total privacy, but there are several good reasons to go incognito while browsing online.

Pros of incognito mode

Here are several advantages, if you choose to use incognito mode.

Deletes cookies

Cookies may be helpful in keeping track of what you’ve bought in your shopping cart or filling in your login credentials, but cookies can also record your sensitive personal information. And you don’t want your PII falling into the hands of cybercriminals or identity thieves.

Browsers delete these cookies when you log out of incognito mode, which also solves the problem of storing multiple users’ cookies. It might be confusing and annoying if information relevant to another user keeps popping up while you’re online.

Keeps browsing history empty and private on your device

Incognito mode makes it easier to use shared computers in places like offices and libraries. Why? When you log out of incognito mode, your temporary browsing data — browsing history, search records, passwords — is erased. That means the next user of that computer can’t access this information.

Prevents third parties from collecting your data

Booking travel accommodations? A private browser may be able to help you find cheaper airfares or hotel bookings by disabling web-tracking. This means websites will have trouble following you, and in some cases will not be able to see your location.

Allows for multiple accounts

You can log into the same site from different accounts. This would be handy if, for instance, you and your friend both want to check your individual Twitter accounts on the same computer.

Helps troubleshoot problem extensions

If something isn’t working, you may be able to figure out the source of the problem by activating private browsing, which can disable extensions and toolbars.

Cons of incognito mode

Here are some disadvantages of incognito mode.

Doesn’t block your IP address from tracking data, only the specific device

Incognito mode can erase data stored on your PC or device, but it can’t prevent your ISP or the government from collecting data transmitted beyond your computer. Similarly, routers, firewalls, and proxy servers can still track your browsing activities.

Websites visited can still collect data

When you log into your account on a website, even if you’re in incognito mode, that website can still collect data related to your activities.

For instance, if you log into your Twitter or Amazon accounts while in incognito mode, you won’t remain anonymous. In a similar way, if you use a Google app, Chrome will still record your cookies and browsing history.

Consider using a VPN

If you want more privacy, activating private browsing is a start. But you won’t retain complete anonymity or data security. There’s another way to help ensure privacy and security when you go online.

A VPN — a virtual private network — can help you create a private network that is secure and encrypted from a public Internet connection. For instance, Norton Secure VPN provides powerful VPN protection, helping secure private data like your passwords, bank details, and credit card information when you’re using public Wi-Fi.

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