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Understanding What Information Incognito Mode on Chrome Hides – And What It Does Not

Most people are aware of Incognito Mode on Google Chrome and correctly assume that it gives you some element of privacy while active. Even with this general knowledge regarding Incognito Mode, there is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding it, specifically what information is hidden when using this mode and what information is not hidden.


The Introduction of Incognito Mode and Its Goals

Google first introduced Incognito Mode in December 2008, and it was met with a great deal of interest and enthusiasm. In the beginning, Incognito Mode gave users protection from snoops into the browser history. The goal of Incognito Mode at first was to help people who share computers. The idea was that by using this mode, those who have to share devices could do so without also sharing cookies, which would track preferences, but do so for the wrong person.

Additionally, Google wanted to provide a small degree of privacy for those who share computers. Their idea was that if someone was shopping for a present for someone they share a computer with, using Incognito Mode would keep the surprise a secret. In this sense, Incognito Mode was designed to let users pause their browser history.

At this point in time, our idea of privacy on the internet and the reasons for it were much more inconsequential. The biggest worry of most, for example, was getting caught looking at random websites while they were on the clock at work. Unfortunately, this is not actually one of the things that Incognito Mode can help you avoid, since your boss will still be able to see what you browse, assuming they do not just check your browser history.

Misinformation Is Abundant

With misunderstandings of Incognito Mode going back a full decade, there has been plenty of time for misinformation to arise, both online and in person. Well-meaning people who think they fully understand Incognito Mode share their knowledge, only for it to turn out that that knowledge was incorrect. To make sure that you do not fall for any of the misinformation surrounding Incognito Mode, take the time to fully understand what information it will truly hide and what information remains accessible.

It Cannot Help Hide NSFW Browsing

If your boss is incredibly non-tech-savvy and their idea of checking that you remain on task is to just glance at your browser history, then Incognito Mode will indeed help you hide your NSFW browsing. If your boss does anything other than just check the history, however, your secrets will be apparent.

That is because using Incognito Mode will not record the activity on your current physical device, but the information can still be recorded somewhere else. When you are connected to the company network, your superior could go through the internet history to find out what you or other employees have browsed.

HTTP Domains Make the Insecurity Worse

The ability to spy on what you are doing online, even with Incognito Mode, is made even worse when you visit a website that uses HTTP instead of HTTPS. Luckily, most websites have already switched to HTTPS or are in the process of doing so. Yet you still need to be wary. If you browse on an unsecure HTTP website, anyone who shares your network can easily look at what you view. Using HTTPS does reduce this ability somewhat. It adds an extra layer of security for those who use Incognito Mode at work, or in any other situation.

Incognito Mode Was Not Created for Privacy

Go back to the original functions of Incognito Mode, mainly helping those who share computers and hiding small facts, like what you shopped for a present. Neither of these goals has a strong focus on your privacy. As such, it is just a common misconception that Incognito Mode enhances your privacy dramatically. It will do so to some extent, but this was not the inherent goal.

In fact, Darin Fisher, the Vice President of Chrome from Google, explained that because of the fact that Incognito Mode leaves you open to some privacy issues, Google specifically did not include the word “privacy” anywhere in its name. Google intentionally made sure not to oversell the ability of this browsing mode. Google even displays a disclaimer when you open an Incognito tab. It lets you know your activity will still be visible, including to your ISP, school, and employer.

Incognito Mode Can Help with Its Original Goals

Incognito Mode continues to serve the same functions that it did at its onset. Since this browsing mode has a decade under its belt, there now are even more uses for this function.

Incognito Mode Can Help You Get Low Fares

Many people online point out the benefits of browsing airline fares while in Incognito Mode. These people claim that if you use this mode, the airlines cannot track your activity. This is a technique that airlines typically do to increase the price or freeze it instead of dropping it if they determined you will likely book. This suggestion only applies to those who conduct flight searches multiple times, not just a one-time search.

Incognito Can Reduce ‘Similar Item’ Suggestions

Some people appreciate the suggestions for similar items that appear after browsing items for sale online. Yet others find these to be a hassle. If you are in the latter group, try browsing or even shopping in Incognito Mode. This will stop the tracking activity that leads to these suggestions, creating a more seamless online shopping experience.

Similarly, using Google search while in Incognito Mode will ensure it does not impact your search suggestions. Google automatically customizes the search results based on things like location and previous search history. It does the same for ads. If you do not want this customization, browsing in Incognito Mode will prevent it.

You can use this capability of Incognito Mode however you want. If you have a minor interest in a certain topic but do not want to see it everywhere, open an Incognito tab and browse for it. This works particularly well if you just want to watch a single YouTube video on a topic but do not want similar suggestions in the future.

Incognito Can Provide Security on Unsecure Websites

Another way that Incognito Mode can help is by providing some protection against unsecure or sketchy websites. Instead of opening a website that you may not trust in a regular tab, open it in Incognito Mode. Then, that page will not track your activities.

Incognito Mode Is Helpful on Public Devices

If you use a public device, such as a computer at a library, office-supply store, or hotel, then using Incognito Mode will be helpful. You can log into your accounts to get information without anything getting stored, including your username or email address. When you close the window, the information will reset so you do not have to worry as much about security.

You can also use Incognito Mode when borrowing a friend’s computer to check your email without having to log them out of their own account.

Incognito Mode Has More Limited Functionality When You Log In

Many people choose to use Google Chrome for a range of reasons, including the ability to log into a single account for various things. If you never log out of your Google account, remember this can limit the functionality of Incognito Mode. Websites will still not be able to store cookies. Yet if you log into your Google account, it will still record your search history.

Incognito Mode Does Not Overcome Monitoring Software

It is very important to clarify that using Incognito Mode does not overcome monitoring software. For example, if your business or school has software on devices or the network that logs your activities online, this will still be visible. Similarly, Incognito Mode will not overcome parental controls or keyloggers. In other words, if there is any possibility that someone is monitoring your online activity, do not assume that using Incognito Mode will stop them.

Incognito Mode Does Not Prevent Add-Ons from Spying

Just like monitoring software will still be able to track anything you do in Incognito Mode, the same may also be true of your plug-ins and add-ons. This will depend on the plug-in or add-on in question and is something to keep in mind. An example is that the earlier Adobe Flash plug-ins allowed for the saving of cookies even if you used Incognito Mode.

Incognito Mode Does Not Protect Against Malware

It is also crucial to note that using Incognito Mode will not provide any protection against malware or similar problems. After all, the only information that Incognito Mode deletes is that on your computer. So, you can accidentally download malware while in this mode. Instead of relying on Incognito Mode to keep you safe, follow other smart strategies, like keeping your devices and browsers updated. You also should use an antivirus program, including to scan files before downloading them.

Incognito Mode Does Not Hide Your IP Address

As mentioned earlier, using Incognito Mode will not hide your activity from your school, work, or ISP. On a similar note, using Incognito Mode will not give you anonymity on the internet. This is because websites still have access to your IP address. This means that if someone has a legal reason to view the history of your IP address, they will still see any browsing that you did while in Incognito Mode.

Other Ways to Get True Privacy Online

If you feel disappointed knowing all the things that Incognito Mode will not do and want another way to maintain your privacy online, you will need to put in a bit more effort. Start by using a private browser instead of Google, Yahoo, or Bing. There are many search engines like DuckDuckGo that will not collect information about you as you search. That means that your search results are not personalized. However, it also saves you from data collection and means you will not see targeted ads based on browsing.

There are also a few methods of hiding your IP address while you browse online, which will give you a greater sense of privacy. After all, the IP address makes it possible to figure out more or less where you are. One option for hiding your IP address is to use a proxy server, which will send your connection via a completely different server, making it hard to track your IP address. Or you can use a VPN, which is a private network using the internet to connect remote users or sites. It will hide your IP address the same as or better than a proxy. Finally, you could use TOR, The Onion Router. This is a network with virtual tunnels that are similar to using hundreds of proxies at once.

What to Take Away

The takeaway is that Incognito Mode will temporarily stop your cookies and browser history from updates. This can deliver a sense of privacy in some ways by hiding your search history from those who are not tech-savvy or by preventing companies from tracking your online shopping habits. At the same time, that is about all that Incognito Mode will hide. Someone on the same network as you can view your actions, even with an Incognito tab open. Therefore, you should not expect it to hide your actions from your ISP, school, or boss. If you want true privacy and invisibility online, you will need to opt for a private browser, use a VPN, or select another similar option.

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