You’ve seen the prompt: If you’re using a shared or public computer, use incognito mode. It gives you a sense of security knowing that whatever sites you visit or passwords you type won’t be saved to the device—like skulking around in an invisibility cloak. But of course, nothing you do online is invisible. Private browsing (aka incognito mode) is a great way to prevent your web browser from saving what you do. But to call it privacy-focused is a stretch, and while your browser or device doesn’t log your movements in its history and cookies, that doesn’t mean the sites you visit don’t clock your behavior. Despite its name, you’re not really incognito, and you may want to dial back your confidence in what these modes really do.
What is incognito mode?
Every browser seems to use a different name for this type of browsing. Chrome calls it Incognito, while Firefox and Safari call it Private Browsing, and Microsoft Edge calls it InPrivate. But they all essentially do the same thing: They forget everything you do when you use them. This means your browsing history isn’t saved, and nothing you do gets logged for autofill purposes.
It also means cookies aren’t saved. Cookies are an essential part of web browsing that, among other things, enable you to stay logged into a site. They also enable sites to store your shopping cart history or the times you’ve visited the site before, which helps the site choose whether or not to bother you with newsletter sign-up prompts or those cookie opt-out requests. Cookies have also long been an important part of the third-party advertising world.
What is incognito mode for?
Private browsing is great for low-stakes searches that you don’t want showing up in your browsing or search history. It’s useful if you’re borrowing someone else’s computer and don’t want your search saved, shopping for gifts on a shared computer, researching medical issues, or searching for something stupid you just don’t want someone else using your computer to stumble upon.
But there’s a false sense of how private these modes are, which can be problematic in cases where it’s crucial you remain truly private.
What is it not good for?
Browsing the internet leaves trails of data everywhere, and companies have built ways to track what you do regardless of cookies and browser history. Google was sued in 2020 for tracking people through its various services, even when people used an incognito tab. Files you download and bookmarks you create are typically saved on your computer during private sessions, and they are not wiped once you end your session. Your IP address, which reveals your general location and can be tied back to your device, may still be tracked on whatever site you visit. Device fingerprints, which collect seemingly innocuous details such as the type of computer you have, what browser you use, or the screen resolution on your computer, can be packaged together and used to track you. Your internet service provider can also see the sites you visit, and if you’re using the internet at work or school, those network administrators may have that same level of access.
And don’t forget: If you log in to any service (such as Facebook or Google) in a private browsing window, that session is no longer private, as the companies are able to match your habits to your registered account, giving them the same access to what you do online for the course of that browsing session. Any data you store on a third-party service during this session—files, photos, contact information, appointments, and more—can also potentially be accessed by the company hosting the data if you’re logged into an account.
The best way to think about private browsing modes is like this: Private or incognito browsing avoids leaving a history of what you do on your own devices. They’re useful, but mostly limited to removing the threat of someone with physical access to your computer seeing what you’ve been up to. Everything you do during that supposedly private browsing session may still be tracked by companies on the internet.
You can combat some of this tracking with browser extensions, but some browsers disable those extensions in private browsing modes. A trustworthy virtual private network can also provide a potential layer of privacy, though an untrustworthy one may still leak or monitor that data. It’s worth considering a browser that focuses more on privacy by default, like Firefox, Safari, or Brave, instead of Chrome or Microsoft Edge. And for searches, use a search engine like DuckDuckGo, Brave Search, or Startpage instead of Google or Bing. But know that even when you do everything as privately as possible, it’s unlikely that you’re truly anonymous. If you’re searching for information that is critical to keep private, use Tor Browser, which helps cloak your location, doesn’t save your history, and removes most tracking.
One privacy tip: Change your default search engine
Aside from being one of the most privacy-invasive products Google makes, Google Search also kind of sucks these days. Results are buried deep down on a page, various boxes of irrelevant or incorrect information fight for your attention, and every link seems to lead back to another Google product. It’s time to switch to something different.
Instead of Google, I prefer a more privacy-focused option like DuckDuckGo or Startpage, both of which give you results up top without confusing ads or Google-specific products. To make these easier to use, you should change the default search option so your browser uses your preferred search engine when you type a search into the URL bar:
- Chrome: Click the three-dot icon > Settings and select the Search Engine tab.
- Firefox: Click the three-line icon > Settings and select the Search tab.
- Safari: Click Safari > Preference and click the Search tab.
- Microsoft Edge: Click the three-dot icon > Settings > Privacy, search, and services > Address bar and search.
Other privacy news we’re watching
📂 1Password, our pick for the best password manager, added a new feature that allows you to share files securely. Bitwarden (our budget pick) has had a similar feature for a while.
🔒 Apple introduced Lockdown Mode, a feature coming in iOS 16 that should help people targeted by government-level spyware by disabling certain features on an iPhone or Mac. While it’s not likely a situation most of us will ever encounter or need, it is a welcome addition to Apple’s operating systems.
📱President Joe Biden issued an executive order specifically targeting digital privacy around reproductive rights. The executive order directs the Federal Trade Commission to assess potential additional protections around seeking information about abortions online, and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services issued a guide to protecting data on your phone. The order does nothing too protective right now, but perhaps the FTC will come up with additional guidance.
This article was edited by Jason Chen.