What is Private (Incognito) Browsing and How Private Is It Really?

Last updated on May 25, 2021

Are You Exposing Yourself Online?

In this day and age, going onto the internet without any protection is as crazy as walking through the desert with no clothes on. The likelihood of surviving without any untoward consequences is extremely limited. In an effort to combat cyber crime and the effect it has on people’s browsing experiences, many of the leading browsers have introduced a new browsing mode that offers users a new level of protection.

Known variously as incognito or private mode, this is designed to, at least, minimize the amount of information regarding your online activity that is saved to your device. Is that enough or is it another so-called waterproof that leaves you soaked to the skin after a gentle shower?

In this article

What is Incognito Mode On Each Browser?

Different browsers have introduced different types of private browsing functions. Google Chrome, for instance, calls theirs Incognito Mode, while Internet Explorer and Edge both offer an InPrivate Browsing function. The Apple browser, Safari, was the first come up with the idea back in 2005, and since then it’s become a pretty standard feature of any browser.

Private Browsing

What Does Incognito Mean

While private browsing is useful for those who want to shield their online activities from the prying eyes of their family and friends who also use the same device, it won’t offer the same level of protection as, say, a VPN. What private browsing does is prevent the device you’re using to connect to the internet from storing any information about where you’ve been during your incognito browsing session. In other words, should a partner, parent or law enforcement officer take a look at your device, they won’t see any evidence that you visited seven different restricted sites in the past two days!

Additional benefits of incognito mode include the ability to use a search engine without it being influenced by your previous browsing history. It can also prevent you from accidentally saving more than one set of login credentials for a single account, such as your Google account, for example. You will also find that private browsing means that online forms won’t access their usual autofill function which is a good thing as this leaves your email and password information vulnerable to hackers.

As with Chrome’s Incognito mode, Internet Explorer and Edge’s InPrivate browsing prevents temporary information such as your browsing history, cookies and form data from being stored on your device. However, if you download files or add bookmarks, these will hang around even after you’ve finished browsing so if you really don’t want people to know what you’ve been up to, you need to remember to delete these at the end of your session.

Private browsing can also speed up your online experience by blocking hidden trackers that follow you around in cyberspace, gathering information as you go, like a puppy picking up scraps from your table. It has other benefits as well, such as overriding usage limitations on certain news sites and helping you secure the best deal for online flights. As private browsing hides all your previous browsing history, you can potentially log in to a news site without it realizing that you’ve been there before. Similarly, because incognito mode hides your browsing history, airlines and online travel agents won’t be able to use that information to up their prices based on your previous activity.

Fundamentally, private browsing means you can visit any site on the internet, or even on the dark web, without anyone using your device finding out so, if you want a quick trip to a blocked site without your partner knowing, activate the incognito mode and enjoy a few minutes of illicit freedom.

How to Operate Private Browsing Mode

Although each browser has a slightly different approach to private browsing, activating this function is pretty straightforward regardless of which browser you’re using. In Mozilla Firefox, all you need to do is click on the menu button in the top right of your screen and select the New Private Window option. You can access Incognito mode in Google Chrome in the same manner.

Internet Explorer for some reason added an additional step, but clicking on “Safety” before selecting InPrivate Browsing shouldn’t cause too much disruption to your browsing experience. Once activated, a dedicated screen will pop up, telling you precisely what private browsing will protect you against and what activity may still be visible to third parties.

Despite this very clear-cut and instantaneous description as to what private browsing actually protects you against, there are a lot of misunderstandings about its precise function, leading some to believe that they’re basking in a secure connection and, throwing caution to the wind, perform some online activities that would perhaps be better done with a VPN or other form of online security.

What Private Browsing Leaves Exposed

There are many common misconceptions about just what private browsing is and a recent survey conducted by researchers from the Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany and the University of Chicago and the Leibniz University in Hannover, revealed some worrying statistics.

For example, 40% of those interviewed believed that Incognito Mode would mean any websites they visited wouldn’t be able to see their geographical location or IP address when they’re in Incognito mode. Over 50% of participants were under the impression that, if they activated incognito mode while logged into their Google account, their search history wouldn’t be stored anywhere, making their activities untraceable.

Unfortunately, as useful as private browsing is, it simply can’t perform these functions. Every time you visit a website, that request for access goes through a series of servers and hubs, being handled by various different parties along the way. Each of these parties can see both where the request originated from and where it’s going and private browsing can’t do anything to hide that information. With such data being tracked and stored as you browse, there is very little secrecy to which sites you’ve visited, when and for how long.

Similarly, Incognito mode doesn’t do anything about DNS tracking which, while designed to give you a more personalized and seamless browsing experience, also collects your private data, including your website preferences, to create a fingerprint of your online activity. This is then used to optimize your user experience and send you targeted adverts according to your browsing history and implied interests. In the same manner, law enforcement agencies can also collate information about you based on your online activities.

As DNS tracking is still in place and private browsing does nothing to hide your IP address or create an alternative, fake IP address, it can’t protect you against malware or virus infections. Similarly, private browsing won’t help you access geographically blocked content or protect your financial data while performing online shopping and banking processes.

Furthermore, the degree to which your browsing history and other temporary information are at least device-protected depends on what other software you have installed. For example, parental monitoring software will still operate even if private browsing is activated, which is great in terms of protecting your children, but not so great if you want to protect your online activities from prying eyes.

Useful in terms of limiting tracking and speeding up your connection, private browsing is great if you simply want to make sure your son doesn’t find out you just bought him an X-box for Christmas or if you’re doing a little online dating and don’t want your partner to find out. If you want a completely secure and anonymous browsing experience, however, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Above and Beyond Incognito Search

Online security and its associated protocols and systems can be difficult to get your head around, which is why there are so many misunderstandings about the exact function of incognito mode and private browsing. Not only do you need anti-virus protection but, if you’re serious about online security, you need a Virtual Private Network (VPN) as well.

While incognito mode may not save a record of your online activities, it can’t do much to protect you against malware and other viruses. Spyware, for example, is often dumped onto your device without you even being aware of it. Common-sense can go some way to protect you against cyber threats and, if you approach any site with a healthy degree of skepticism, you can reduce your vulnerability to some extent.

Resisting the temptation to click on a link or open an attachment in a suspicious email is one step to safeguarding yourself. Another is to avoid downloading anything from a site that doesn’t seem 100% kosher. These are very useful when it comes to preventing malware infection but, even in incognito mode, it’s simply not enough.

Firewalls and Anti-virus

These days, most operating systems come with an inbuilt firewall which can when activated, filter out any traffic that doesn’t fit a certain set of criteria. In other words, if the firewall identifies a potential malware threat, it will stop that traffic from traveling through to your device.

The next layer of protection comes in the form of an anti-virus. While a firewall can prevent any new infections from entering your operating system, an anti-virus can eliminate threats that are already present as well as protecting you against new ones.

As with any online security, choosing the right anti-virus program is vital, especially as many of the free options available are really just a front for getting spyware nestled into the depths of your device. If you want to ensure your computer, laptop or smartphone stays fit and healthy, avoid downloading anything that might not agree with it, like Malwarebytes anti-virus which introduces more problems than it does solutions.

Anti-tracking Software (Adblockers)

This is a great way to reduce tracking activity during your browsing session and speed up website access by getting rid of all those annoying pop-up adverts. While some tracking is useful, improving your online experience and allowing you some freedom of movement, too much can be negative, especially when many sites are dependent on advertising to stay afloat.

Adblockers can prevent adverts from popping up, disrupting your browsing and slowing down websites. They can also save you money by blocking tracking requests that use up your bandwidth and battery power. According to the adblocker, Disconnect, by blocking ads, they can reduce the amount of data you use by around 39% while improving load time by up to 44%.

Proxy Servers

One of the biggest online security risks comes from the visibility of every user’s IP address. Every device has an Internet Protocol address which identifies it every time it connects to the internet. Enabling two devices to locate one another and share information, an IP address is critical to the smooth functioning of the internet as a whole.

The problem with IP addresses is that they pinpoint your geographical location and share that information with every site you visit. This means that, should you be living in a wealthy neighborhood in a first-world country, certain online sales sites will be able to pick this up and alter their pricing accordingly.

Users in certain locations may also find they are blocked from accessing certain sites simply because of their geographical location.

A proxy server is one way of circumventing issues such as these. A proxy acts as a substitute, replacing your original IP address with an alternative one that you have selected. This can be particularly handy if you’re overseas and want to access a website in your home country that’s blocked in your current location.

Proxy servers can also help save your bandwidth by compressing traffic and removing adverts. They can also block cookies so details of your most recent browsing activities remain hidden.

One of the problems with proxy servers is that they aren’t particularly user-friendly. To set one up in Windows, for example, you need to go into the settings for your network and internet and then open the dedicated Proxy page and then enter the script for your proxy’s address. Ok, so it’s not rocket science but, when compared to the simplicity and security provided by a VPN, it does seem like more hassle than it’s worth.


Virtual Private Networks not only have the capacity to mask your IP address but will also protect your private data by creating a secure tunnel through which you can roam anywhere in cyberspace completely undetected. By encrypting every piece of data that leaves your device, a VPN will hide your activity and identity even from your ISP provider. Instead of an online shopping site seeing your IP address and associated geographical location, it will only see that of the VPN server you’ve selected.

Unlike proxy servers, VPN’s offer comprehensive security for your online sessions by encrypting all your traffic so, even if it is leaked or hacked, the perpetrator should see nothing more than an incomprehensible set of encoded information rather than the raw data. The data is encrypted according to your selected protocol, although OpenVPN is now the default protocol chosen by most VPNs as it is the most secure and uses digital certificates for authentication.

Bottom Line

Private browsing is only one small step in the ever-evolving world of online security. While incognito mode might prevent your kids from finding out which restricted sites you like to visit, it won’t do anything to protect your personal data or give you anonymity online. Additional services and extensions, like firewalls, anti-virus, and anti-tracking software can have a positive effect on your browsing experience, both in terms of speed and security, none of them will give you the same level of privacy as a reliable VPN offers.

If you’re serious about remaining anonymous online and protecting yourself against identity theft and other cyber threats, a VPN is the most user-friendly and effective form of protection out there. Just one word of warning – not all VPNs were created equal and some, particularly free packages, make you even more vulnerable than you were before. A VPN is the best answer to online security, but only if you opt for a reliable service with consistent performance and positive customer reviews.

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