Online agencies track our internet usage: what kinds of pages we visit, what kinds of things we search, where we spend the most time. These companies use this information in a variety of ways, ostensibly to help you, such as with ads tailored to your unique interests. For many, this feels like a violation of privacy, and not wrongly so. While some might find the tailored ads useful, a lot of people simply don’t like the idea that someone out there is watching their every move, even if the user is doing something as simple as browsing for clothes on Amazon.
The major internet browsers offer some options to increase your privacy while browsing the internet, such as Incognito Mode: a separate browser window with increased privacy and security features. These modes are not foolproof—any online activity leaves some trace—but they give you options to avoid tracking cookies and similar things that seek to study your online activity.
What is Incognito Mode?
“Incognito Mode” is a way of describing the private browsing modes that all the major internet browsers offer. Google Chrome calls this “incognito mode,” but in Firefox, it’s “private window,” and the other browsers give similarly different names for it. For our purposes, “Incognito Mode” is a blanket term for all of these options.
Incognito Mode is a way to increase your privacy, but do note that it is not the same thing as complete anonymity. Any website you visit will still recognize your IP address—a unique identifier for your computer, not unlike your home address identifying your house from all the others on the street. Search engines and agencies that have the ability to access your IP address, such as internet service providers (ISPs), will still be able to see that you visited a particular website. More powerful privacy tools are needed to prevent that recognition.
How is Incognito Mode used?
The primary way that Incognito Mode changes the browsing experience is that it does not track your website browsing history, will not store cookies (a small bit of data that allows a website to remember certain information for your next visit), or supply the visited website with any tracking information. Nor does the Incognito browser store any of the website information on your computer, unlike normal usage. Once you close an Incognito browser, all the information is gone, as though you had never used it. Future private browsing sessions are treated as if each was the first time you visited a website.
Private browsing in this way only hides the local traces of your online activity—that is to say, things on your computer. As noted above, this does not hide the activity from your ISP, and any agencies that have been granted legal access to that information. Private browsing is not a license to do whatever you want, then, but it does reduce the amount of information stored on your computer and reduce the presence of tracking-based changes to your online sessions.
How to Open a Window in Incognito Mode
The actual process to access private browsing is a little different for each internet browser, but it generally follows the same process.
For PC users:
Open the Chrome browser as normal. Look for the three dots, like vertical ellipses, in the upper-right corner of the window. Click on that and a drop-down menu appears. One of the options is to open a new incognito window, so select that and a new private browser will open. For those of you who fancy a shortcut, you can also see the key combination for how to open the new window without having to access the drop-down menu. In Chrome’s case, pressing Ctrl + Shift + N in a non-private browser will open up a new incognito window.
For Android users:
Open the Chrome browser as normal. Tap the icon that looks like three dots, like vertical ellipses, in the upper-right corner of the window. A drop-down menu will appear. Tap the New Incognito tab option in the drop-down menu to bring up a new incognito tab. A new private browser will open.
Open the Firefox browser as normal. Click on the 3 lines symbol in the upper-right corner of the window, which resembles a bookshelf. A drop-down menu appears, and one of the options is to open a new private window. Select that option and a new private browser will open. You may also notice a shortcut key combination. In this case, you can also press Ctrl + Shift + P while in a normal browser to open a new private browser.
One other option for Firefox is to simply click on the File menu in the upper-left corner, and then select New Private Window from the drop-down menu that follows.
Open the Opera browser as normal. Click on the red “O” button in the upper-left corner, which will bring up a drop-down menu. From that menu, select New Private Window and a new private browser window will open.
You may also use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + N to open a new private browser window while you have the standard Opera browser open.
For Mac users:
Open the Safari browser as normal. Click on the File menu in the upper menu bar. From the File drop-down menu, select New Private Window and a new private browser will open.
For Windows users:
Open the Safari browser as normal. Click on the gear-shaped icon in the upper-right corner of the window (resembling the Windows Settings gear icon). From the drop-down menu, select the Private Browsing option. A new private browser will open.
For iPad/iPhone users:
Open the Safari browser as normal. Tap the new tab icon to open a new browser tab, and select the Private option. A new private tab will open.
Open the Edge browser as normal. Look for the three dots in the upper-right corner, which resemble ellipses. Click on that button, and from the drop-down menu, select New InPrivate Window. A new private browser will open.
Instead of using the menu, you can also open the Edge browser as normal and use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + P to open a new private window.
Open the Internet Explorer browser as normal. Click on the gears icon in the upper-right corner of the window. From the drop-down options menu that appears, select the Safety option, and from the pop-up menu that appears, click InPrivate Browsing. A new private browser will open.
If you would like to use a keyboard shortcut instead of navigating the menus, you can press Ctrl + Shift + P from the standard browser window to open a new private browser window.
How to Search Incognito
Searching in a private browser is done as you would normally search. You can still use Google search, for instance, and it functions as it always has. However, the search engine will not save your search results like normal. As mentioned above, this does not mean complete anonymity. There are further steps you must take if you want to assure that you are going to remain anonymous.
Privado also offers a browser add-on feature that lets you add it to your preferred browser as the default search engine. This is doubly useful for those who want to be able to search privately each time they use a search engine, rather than having to take the extra steps.
Once you close out of a private browser window, you will have to open another to begin another private browsing session. Keep in mind that none of your data will be saved from the first session, even if you open another private window from the first one before closing it.
Can I Keep My Browser in Private Mode?
Some browsers do have an option to always use a private browser mode, or launch a private browser by default. This requires some slightly more advanced options tweaking than many casual users may be comfortable with, and it does present a few inconveniences. For instance, you will have to log in to every website every time you visit one, rather than having them save your login data and automatically signing you in.
The process to do this for some of the major browser options is as follows:
For being the world’s most popular browser, Google Chrome has one of the more involved methods of staying Incognito. To do this, you must add a command line option to the Chrome shortcut. Essentially, what you’re doing is adding a small set of instructions to the Chrome shortcut so that it executes them every time the browser starts up.
Locate the shortcut you use to launch Google Chrome. This will be the Chrome icon on your desktop, or taskbar, or Start menu. If you use more than one, you will have to remember to add in this option for each one, or it will open in the normal non-private browser.
Right-click on the shortcut and select “Properties.” The Windows Explorer Properties window then appears, defaulting to the Shortcut tab. If for some reason you move away from this tab, return to the Shortcut tab. Look for the field that is labeled “Target.” There will be text here, which simply describes the thing to which the shortcut is pointing.
At the end of this text string, you want to add the following text exactly: -incognito
Press “OK” and the Properties window will close, saving your changes.
Now Chrome will launch with incognito mode, but from the modified shortcut only. You can keep some private and some normal if you want to make it easier to launch straight into a private window only at certain times. You could even copy the shortcut, then modify one to launch into incognito mode and rename it to something like “Private Chrome,” or “Incognito Chrome,” if you desire.
Mozilla Firefox is much easier in setting up default private browsing mode. Click on the bookshelf icon to bring up the drop-down menu, and then click on the “Options” menu (below the gear symbol). Navigate to the “Privacy” tab, and you will notice a section entitled “History.” There is a field under this section that says “Firefox will:” and then presents a list of options in a drop-down menu.
In the drop-down menu, simply select “Never remember history” and Firefox will always use the same settings as private browsing. You can also clear your current history while you are in this section if you want to start with a clean slate.
Click on the Safari tab next to File in the File menu, and you will bring up a drop-down menu. Select “Preferences,” and under the settings on the General tab, you can see “Safari opens with.” Click the blue arrows to bring up the drop-down menu there and simply select the private window option to set Safari to always open with a new private window.
Unfortunately, the Edge browser does not yet offer a default private browsing mode. Many users have requested such a feature, so Microsoft may implement the option in the future.
Like Chrome, Internet Explorer requires a command-line option to activate the InPrivate Browsing, and it is performed in a similar way. Find the shortcut that you intend to use to launch Internet Explorer. Right-click the shortcut, select “Properties,” and then look for the “Target” field. Add the following text to the end of the string in that field: -private
You will have to perform this command-line operation for every shortcut you wish to establish a private browsing default. You can do this with more than one, or leave some for regular browsing and set some specifically to private browsing if you prefer.
How to Disable Incognito Mode
Turning off incognito mode is as simple as reversing the above processes. For most of these browsers, you can just choose to open a regular version of the browser. If you had to add a command-line exception for some of these browsers, like Google Chrome, then you will have to remove that exception the same way that you added it.
Right-click the shortcut for your browser, click “Properties,” and then in the “Target” field, remove either the -incognito text or the -private text, depending on the browser (Chrome and Internet Explorer, respectively).
Some users may simply find it easier to make two versions of the shortcut, and make one private, and rename it accordingly. Use this option if you expect to regularly need to access both a private and a non-private browser window (such as families that have younger children accessing the internet).
Does Incognito Mode Save My Information for Later Use? The Truth About Incognito Mode
By default, private browsers do not save your login information, so you will need to log in every time you visit a website with your incognito browser—even if your login information is normally saved by your non-private browser. They do not store tracking cookies or preferences, nor do they save your browsing history.
External sources, such as Google itself, can still identify you via your IP address. Your browsing is not completely anonymous. Google in particular also has one other major exception: if you log into a site that uses Google’s services, including advertising and products, and also log into a Google account (such as your Gmail account), Google will connect the two to identify your activity.
If you want to avoid this, simply do not log into Google accounts while browsing anonymously. You can try clearing your browser cookies before logging in, if you absolutely must, in order to prevent Google from linking your private browsing history with your account activity. However, unless it’s absolutely necessary, it’s safest for privacy if you avoid logging in to the Google accounts entirely.
Is Incognito Mode Secure Browsing? Does it Protect Me from Attackers?
The truth is that incognito mode is not any more secure from external threats than regular browsing. You can still log in to your accounts while in private browsing, making your data a target for malicious entities. While you can avoid this by not logging into or accessing sensitive information, the incognito mode itself doesn’t protect you from harm. It keeps your activity mostly hidden on your local system, but others can still see your IP address, for instance, and dedicated attackers can see more than that.
Private browsing does not protect you from viruses, for instance, in that suspicious link in your email. Nor will it prevent you from being the target of scams. If someone had a way of looking at your passwords as you entered them, the private browser would not stop them from collecting that data.
It’s best to look at private browsing as a way of protecting your privacy locally. Incognito modes don’t make your system more resilient to harmful programs and viruses. You still need to exercise caution when browsing privately, and use precautionary measures. Always have an antivirus installed and active, and run regular scans with antivirus and anti-malware software to make sure your system is safe.
Do not visit sites, accept offers, or click links that seem suspicious to you. Even in a private browser, you must always use common sense and err on the side of safety.
How Is My Browsing Being Tracked?
Websites track your browsing activity to gather data for multiple purposes. Sometimes, this means just making your browsing experience better. Often, it’s seeking your habits and browsing preferences to target ads at you. Ever looked at a pair of shoes online and then suddenly every banner ad seemed to be about shoes? That’s an example of this process in action.
There are a few components to this tracking. Here is a list of the most common tracking mechanisms you will encounter.
- Cookies: Tracking cookies are text-only bits of data stored on your computer. Websites use these to quickly access information about your last visit and use that to enhance your current visit. If you’ve ever put items into a shopping cart, left the website and returned to find the items still in your cart, you’ve seen cookies at work.
- Accounts: Google tracks account usage and activity, as do other sites like Facebook, Amazon, and so on. Have you ever received a message asking if you are logging into your Google account from a certain device? This is a security check, but also shows how the system is tracking your activity. Often these sites give this tracking information to partnered advertisers.
- ISP: Your internet service provider tracks your online activity, and can still see your IP address even while using a private browser. If someone tried to illegally download a torrent of movies, for example, the ISP will still see that activity and may respond punitively. Hackers could potentially trace your IP address back to your local network, as could malicious software.
- Fingerprinting: The method called “fingerprinting” checks your browser configurations and settings, rather than storing a file (like a cookie) on your computer. These systems also use data like your monitor size and operating system. Fingerprinting is less precise but always evolving.
What is the Best Browser for Incognito Mode?
The “best” browser for incognito mode depends on what you value. While Google Chrome typically has a slightly higher performance than Firefox, it’s true that Firefox is more secure and that the company, Mozilla, is a champion for internet privacy and security. So if you value speed and slightly more reliable performance, Google Chrome is your best bet. If you want a more secure browser, Firefox should be your choice.
There are, however, a few other options, some of which are not household names like Firefox and Chrome. Here is a list of browser options designed for security:
- Brave: The Brave browser is probably the most private of them all. It’s got customizable security settings, with built-in anti-phishing and anti-malware functions.
- Firefox: Firefox is highly secure and the company behind it, Mozilla, has long been a proponent of privacy rights. It’s customizable so you can tailor for performance, security, or somewhere in between.
- Tor: The Tor browser is for maximum security all the way. Its every feature is designed to help secure you against unwanted intrusions.
- Chrome: Google Chrome lacks some of the heavyweight features of its competitors, but its privacy options are robust and paired with a consistently high performance.