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What is incognito mode? And why it’s not as private as you think

Incognito mode leaves no trace of your online activity on your browser, but it doesn’t guarantee private browsing or prevent web tracking. Let’s discover what incognito mode means, how it works, and what it can and cannot do.

What is incognito mode? And why it’s not as private as you think

What is incognito mode?

Incognito mode is a feature of Chrome and other web browsers that allows you to surf the internet without saving your browsing history, cookies, and other site data. When you go incognito, your browser doesn’t record which web pages you visit.

You can use incognito mode on any device that has a browser. While “incognito mode” is the most recognized term, all major browsers offer this private browsing feature. However, each uses a different name for it:

Android and iOS smartphone and tablet users can also take advantage of private browsing. And apart from web browsers, some services offer incognito mode, such as Reddit, YouTube, Google Maps, and Google Play Store.

But incognito mode doesn’t hide your IP address or encrypt your traffic – your ISP or other third parties can still peek at your data. That’s why incognito mode is not as private as most would think.

How does incognito mode work?

The way incognito mode works is pretty straightforward. Once you open an incognito window, your browser starts a new private browsing session.

  • Your browser pauses recording your browsing history (the web pages you visit).
  • It also stops saving usernames, passwords, and other information you enter in the forms.
  • Your browser halts extensions unless you enable them in advance manually.
  • You need to log in to your accounts even if you have login credentials saved on your browser.

The incognito browsing session ends once you close the incognito tabs or your browser. All the cookies and site data saved during the session are automatically deleted.

If you check your browsing history after, you will not be able to find the list of websites visited. And those websites will not recognize you as a returning visitor because they will lack cookies. (Unless they use different internet trackers to keep tabs on you, of course.)

But you will still find the new bookmarks you’ve added, the files you’ve downloaded, and the pages you’ve added to the reading list.

What does incognito mode do?

During private browsing sessions, incognito mode does the following:

  • Keeps your browsing history empty, so other people cannot find it when they use the same device.
  • Blocks third-party cookies by default unless you choose to allow them.
  • Logs you out of your accounts and deletes any entered data when you close the window. It prevents others from logging in to your account with autofill or finding the information you entered in online forms, for example, your payment card details or email address.
  • Deletes cookies when you close the incognito window. It stops websites from recognizing you as a returning visitor later and thus limits tracking.

What incognito doesn’t do

While all the mentioned factors make your browsing in incognito mode more private, you also need to keep in mind what incognito mode doesn’t do:

  • Hide your identity from websites when you willingly create an account or log in.
  • Protect your traffic from third parties like your ISP, the government, or network admin at your office or university. These entities can still see and log which websites you visit.
  • Hide your location. Websites can still determine where you are from based on your IP address location or GPS.
  • Mask your IP address. Websites you visit can see your IP address and use it to track you.
  • Secure your traffic from hackers or other attacks and vulnerabilities because it doesn’t provide any extra security features.
  • Delete your browsing history from the DNS cache. Anyone with extra knowledge can find your incognito mode history saved on your device.

Incognito mode doesn’t hide your IP or encrypt your traffic, but a virtual private network (VPN) does. To keep your internet activity private, use NordVPN.

Is incognito mode really incognito?

Your private browsing mode only blocks your browser from recording your traffic. It doesn’t hide your IP and doesn’t encrypt or route your traffic via a remote server the way a VPN does. Your ISP and employer, websites, search engines, governments, and other third-party snoopers can still see and collect your data or track your IP address.

Web browsers are upfront about this too.

Each time you open a new incognito window on Google Chrome, your browser warns you that your activity might still be visible to websites you visit, your employer or school, and your internet service provider.

Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge offer similar disclaimers too. Only Apple’s Safari doesn’t bother to inform its users about these limitations.

Moreover, if you log in to Facebook, Amazon, or other site while browsing in private mode, those sites will know about it – the private mode will no longer conceal you. If you sign in to one of Google’s many apps, your account will also start recording your history again, making incognito mode useless.

Check out our brief video on incognito mode below.

Is incognito mode safe to use?

There’s no harm in using incognito mode. While it doesn’t protect your privacy as much as many may think (but now you know better), it is safe to use as long as your browser is secure and up to date.

However, incognito mode doesn’t guarantee any more security than the usual browsing mode. If you open fake websites or click on malicious links, you can still fall victim to a cyberattack.

When should you use incognito mode?

While incognito mode has its limitations, it can be useful in some cases. You should learn how to use incognito mode and use private browsing:

  • When you share your device with others or use a public computer. Private browser modes protect you from people tracking your online activity on your computer. They cannot quickly look up your browsing history or login and site data.
  • When you need to use two accounts on the same platform simultaneously. Incognito mode allows you to log in to the same platform without logging out on the non-incognito browser tabs. This function comes in handy when your friend wants to use your device to log in to their accounts or you want to separate your personal and work profiles.
  • When booking flight tickets or hotel rooms. Since incognito mode doesn’t store cookies, the airline or hotel website might not know that you checked your chosen dates before. So they cannot hike their prices accordingly, and you may get better deals.
  • When shopping for gifts. No cookies and site data means no targeted advertising following your family members around and accidentally revealing to them which birthday gift you’ve been researching online.
  • When you own a website. Incognito mode lets you see the site as an outsider would – checking the cookie disclaimer and all other details a new visitor sees. It also loads the latest version of the website, so you can preview the most recent edits without the cache getting in the way.
  • When you want to discover different content. Many websites personalize our experience and show us content they know we like. If you watch cat videos on YouTube, every time you open the homepage, it will be filled with adorable kittens. Incognito mode doesn’t know your history, so the website content you see is fresh and not based on your previous activity.

How to actually browse privately

Incognito mode is not an all-in-one solution for browsing privately. It takes a lot more than a browsing mode to achieve privacy online.

  • Switch to a privacy-focused browser. While web browsers like Chrome or Edge are the most popular, they are not much concerned about your privacy. Most secure browsers do a much better job protecting your privacy by blocking trackers and not logging your data for profit.
  • Use a privacy-focused search engine. If you ditch Chrome but still search for everything on Google, your browsing will not be private. You’re better off using a search engine that respects your privacy, for example, DuckDuckGo or Mojeek.
  • Add browser extensions for extra privacy and security. If changing a browser is too big of a step, you can add browser extensions for privacy instead. Browser extensions can block scripts, ads, or trackers, providing extra privacy and security.
  • Disable third-party cookies. Third-party cookies allow advertisers to track you across different platforms. While Chrome will stop enabling third-party cookies in the second half of 2024, you can already disable cookies manually through your browser.
  • Delete cookies regularly. Some web cookies are harmless, but others can invade your privacy and aid advertisers, so it’s a good habit to clear cookies routinely.
  • Use a VPN for incognito mode. A VPN does wonders where incognito mode comes up short. VPNs encrypt your internet traffic and hide your IP address, preventing tracking by ISPs and other third parties on the network level. NordVPN goes even further with the Threat Protection feature, which blocks ads, trackers, and malware. It ensures extra privacy and security for your daily browsing.


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