A lot of us are probably already familiar with using an incognito browser to look at things that we’d rather our search history did not remember. However, using an incognito browser doesn’t hide your browsing from everyone – here’s what incognito mode can and cannot do to protect you while online.
What is incognito mode, and how does it work?
Introduced to Google Chrome in 2008, incognito mode (or Private Browsing if you’re using Firefox) is a browser window that acts as if you’ve never used it before.
There are no saved cookies to track your browsing behavior, no saved passwords or google searches, and no browsing history record when you start using incognito mode in your browser.
Whenever you close an incognito window, all that information it collects, like passwords or search history, will be deleted.
What does incognito mode protect you from?
Using incognito mode while browsing the internet has several key benefits.
Firstly, and this may be familiar to some of you, is that it stops family members and friends from snooping through your browser history. If other people also use your computer, using an incognito window can help you keep your business to yourself. It’s also a better alternative than wiping your history altogether, which would definitely raise suspicion.
Secondly, it protects you from cookies tracking your web browsing. Cookies are small files that are embedded on your computer when you visit a website. If you go on their website again, the site uses the cookie to identify you and what you were looking at on their website.
You may want cookies to help your browser remember things like you mail and social media accounts, but these cookies also let the same companies behind those accounts to track your activity on their site. Tracking your data helps these companies figure out what you’re into, and target ads that they think you’re most likely to click on. This sort of specific data is not only useful to companies but also for government agencies who wish to access this user data to track your browsing.
Browsing in incognito mode will prevent any of these parties from being able to track what you’re doing.
What doesn’t incognito mode protect you from?
Incognito mode can stop some tracking, but it can’t protect you from all of it.
Incognito mode will not, for instance, protect you from people trying to access your DNS queries.
Whenever you visit a website, your browser asks a DNS server (provided by your internet service provider) for the site’s IP address. Once the DNS server responds and allows you to connect, this query is recorded regardless of whether you’re in incognito mode or not. This makes it possible for your ISP to sell your DNS query to advertisers or even hand it over to law enforcement.
As your ISP provides your DNS service, and your ISP may be beholden to log all your DNS queries, you’ll want to look for alternative DNS services. There are a few alternatives available, like Google’s DNS service and even free DNS services like OpenNIC. You can also look for good VPN providers, which have their own DNS service and don’t collect records of browsing history.
Incognito mode also doesn’t stop Wi-Fi network administrators from tracking your browsing. Whether it’s your school or work network, whoever is the administrator will be able to see what sites you visit even in incognito mode. They’ll be able to see even more information if the sites you visit are not encrypted with HTTPS.
To hide your browsing habits from prying eyes, use Tor or a VPN to protect yourself online. This goes without saying, but be wary about using a computer that’s not yours, especially if it was given to you by the school or your workplace. Chances are there may be tracking software installed and neither Tor nor a VPN can help with that.
Incognito mode protects you from some snoops, but not others
Incognito mode is useful in stopping your browser from collecting cookies and snooping family members, but you’ll need more than a private window to protect your online browsing from your ISP and possibly your school or office. If you want to take a further step towards keeping your data secure, consider combining a good VPN and Tor to stop excessive data collection and use your own devices when you can.