What is Browser Privacy/Incognito Mode and What It Can Hide?
People are now more aware of their online security than ever and all big tech corporations know this. This is why they take all measures to make sure users can stay in the illusion of privacy. One such privacy tool is private or incognito browsing. While it’s not exactly useless, it looks more secure than how it actually is.
It's an “illusion” because these companies will not be abusing user data for their own profits. However, they do want to appear safe so users can rely on them. The first one that comes to our mind is Facebook. But Facebook isn’t the only one that gnaws into our privacy. Our browsers are involved in these activities as well. Browsers such as Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari – they all have their own means of recording user data and activity.
Owing to all the opposition to these data-gathering activities, most popular browsers have an “incognito mode” for web browsing. The basic idea here is that you can use this mode to prevent the browser from tracking and recording your online activities. This mode has its uses, but it is important to understand what it can and can’t do.
Here's the skinny.
What Does Incognito Mode Actually Do?
On the whole, the most apparent benefit of the incognito mode is being able to browse without recording a browsing history.
It is a fairly well-known fact that whatever you do on your browser is going to get recorded. Right from the time you enter a URL into your address bar, your browser will start recording what you do. This is the normal mode in which you will be browsing all your websites.
The browser history will also use something called cookies to record certain information which will help you have a better experience next time. Things like recording your passwords to facilitate auto logins and remembering your search engine query results etc. are done by cookies.
In contrast, incognito modes only keep cookies for one-time use. So, when you are done using the browser and close it, the cookies will be deleted as well.
Can Google see your search queries? Yes, it can. Google can still see your IP address and whatever you’re searching for. Your ISP can still see whatever you do and the government can also continue to spy on you without any hindrance. On its own, incognito doesn’t do much for your online security.
In Firefox, there is another added layer of protection over and above limiting cookies. In the Firefox incognito mode, users are also protected against fingerprint browsing. Browser fingerprinting is basically a method of gathering information related to your device and it can be pretty detailed.
Is Incognito Mode Totally Useless?
Of course not. It protects your browsing history from people who have access to your device. So if you’ve been creeping the profile of your crush on a shared computer you can use incognito mode to keep your friends from finding out.
With Incognito, you don’t have to delete the browser history later because it doesn’t keep a history in the first place. Incognito mode also lets you prevent activity tracking to some degree by keeping websites from remembering you.
Where Incognito Mode Fails Utterly
However, that mild level of browser-based protection is where privacy/incognito mode's utility stops. Advertisers are still going to be able to find out what you searched for and push their customized ads on you. This is done by using third-party systems for tracking and analysis which the incognito mode has no direct control over.
Below are other ways you'll be left unprotected.
Your device probably has plenty of apps which have their own tracking mechanisms. They will also include some kinds of bloatware which will add to your online device visibility. This might be mentioned in their EULA agreement, but very few people actually read through all of that legal stuff. Additionally, apps from shady sources might have keyloggers which can compromise you in ways you didn’t know existed.
Google’s Notorious Data Tracking
Google is easily the biggest name in search engines and online convenience. “Google it” is the way any online search is recommended. Naturally, Google takes advantage of its premier status and compromises user data rather blatantly. All its additional services like YouTube, Gmail, Docs etc. are equally unmindful of user privacy.
Your IP is Still Visible
Another major blunder made by some incognito mode users is underestimating the importance of their IP address. Your browser’s incognito mode will do nothing whatsoever to hide your true IP address. The only exceptions here are Opera which comes with a default VPN setting and Firefox’s Do Not Track option. These two can enhance your privacy to a degree but it is still decidedly lax.
As you can see, incognito mode is no more than a thin veil over your online activities. So, if your mom decided to check your browser history and you went incognito, she won’t know what you looked at. Some primitive cookies may also not get stored on your device. But other than that, incognito mode is going to be of little use to you for true online privacy.
If you want true online privacy and possibly even anonymity, you need to use a VPN.
A VPN will encrypt your traffic so your ISP and the government will not be able to watch your online activities. Also, it will redirect your data through one of its own servers so the open internet cannot see your real IP address.
However, even if you use a VPN, your mom can still see your browsing history. If you want to stay protected from online entities AND the people who have access to your computer, make sure you use both – incognito mode and VPN.