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

Nov 12, 2020 · 4 min read

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

That private browser mode or incognito mode you use to browse the net privately doesn’t make you as private as you think. Before completely trusting your browser, find out what it can and can’t do.

What incognito mode does

Incognito/private mode helps you browse the web without storing browsing data on your browser so that it can’t be retrieved later. This means that your searches, visited pages, login details and cookies will not be saved on the device after you close your private windows. However, any files you download or bookmarks you create will be kept. Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer all offer similar private modes.

What it does:

  • Deletes cookies when you close the window;
  • Keeps your browsing history empty.

What it doesn’t do:

  • Hide your traffic from third parties like your ISP, the government, or your network admin at your office or university;
  • Secure your traffic from hackers or other attacks and vulnerabilities.

Private browser modes protect you from people tracking your online activities on the computer you’re using. It’s a great tool when you share your computer with others or when using a public computer. It can also be used if a trusted friend wants to log into their accounts when on your device.

They can also be used for booking flight tickets or hotel rooms because they might get you lower prices. Because they don’t save cookies, the airline or hotel website might not know that you checked your chosen dates before and hike their prices accordingly.

How to activate incognito mode

To start browsing in incognito mode, open your browser, select “File” and then choose “New Private Window” or “New Incognito Window” (the name may vary from browser to browser). Here are the shortcuts for different browsers:

  • Chrome: Control/⌘ + Shift + N
  • Firefox: Control/⌘ + Shift + P
  • Internet Explorer: Control + Shift + P
  • Safari: ⌘ + Shift + N

Once you are done, simply close the window, and that’s it – your local browsing history is gone. You can also make your browser start in private browsing mode by default so that your online activities are never logged locally. To do this, search your browser’s settings tab.

Incognito mode: not as private as you think

Your private browsing mode only blocks your own browser from recording your traffic and it doesn’t hide your IP. Someone can still track you (use our tool to see what your IP address reveals about you). It doesn’t encrypt or route your traffic via remote server the way a VPN does. It only erases your browsing history, deletes cookies when you close the browser, and removes the data you enter in online forms. Your ISP, your employer, websites, search engines, governments and other third-party snoopers can still collect your data and track your IP address.

Google and Mozilla are completely upfront about this in their browsers. “Going incognito doesn’t hide your browsing from your employer, your Internet service provider or the websites that you visit,” Chrome users are warned each time they open a new incognito window. However, Apple and Microsoft do not bother to inform their users about these limitations.

Also, if you do log into Facebook, Amazon, or anywhere else while browsing in incognito mode, those sites are obviously going to know about it – the private mode will no longer conceal you in those cases. If you sign into one of Google’s multiple apps, Chrome will also start recording your cookies and history again, making the whole incognito thing useless.

How to delete your incognito history

While your incognito history is not readily available, your device still stores it in its DNS cache. Anyone with slightly more advanced tech knowledge can get hold of it. However, you can easily remove it by following the instructions below.

If you use Windows:

1. Type in “command prompt” in the Windows search box and choose Run as administrator option;

How to delete your incognito history

2. In the command prompt window type “ipconfig/flushdns” and press Enter.

How to delete your incognito history

If you use MacOS:

1. Open Finder, then choose Applications -> Utilities;

How to delete your incognito history

2. Open Terminal;

How to delete your incognito history

3. Type in “sudo killall -HUP mDNSResponder” and hit Enter;

How to delete your incognito history

4. Type in your password, press Enter and close the window.

This will flush all the DNS entries and no one will see your visited websites.

How to actually browse privately

In addition to using incognito/private mode, you need a browser or browser extension that will protect your privacy from third parties as well.

Here are a few good options:

  • Firefox, with the right settings, is a good mainstream choice when it comes to security and privacy. However, it doesn’t come close to more specialized browsers;
  • The Tor browser is a great option for maximum privacy, but it can run a bit slow because of the multiple nodes it sends your traffic through;
  • Vivaldi is an interesting browser with strong security and privacy features and a high degree of customizability.

To find more great private browser options, check out our post!

If you want to stick with your current browser, privacy extensions are the way to go. There’s a huge selection of tools you can use to make sure you truly browse securely and privately. Click here to find out more.

How to use a VPN on Incognito Mode?

For greater private browsing security, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). It does what incognito mode cannot. It hides your IP address and replaces it with the address of a remote VPN server, making it impossible to track you in this way. It also encrypts your traffic, protecting your browsing habits from your ISP and other third parties.

To use the best of both worlds you just have to:

  1. Open a VPN and connect to the remote server of your choice;
  2. Open your browser in incognito mode.

A VPN will encrypt your whole connection while incognito mode will minimise your digital footprint on the browser level.

For more great online privacy tips, subscribe to NordVPN’s monthly blog email newsletter below!

Daniel Markuson
Daniel Markuson successVerified author

Daniel is a digital privacy enthusiast and an Internet security expert. As the blog editor at NordVPN, Daniel loves to serve up generous helpings of news, stories, and tips to help people stay private and secure.

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