Is Incognito Mode as Safe as You Think? | Hacker Noon

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Jessica Truong Hacker Noon profile picture

@jtruongJessica Truong

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What is Incognito Mode?

Incognito mode is a private window that you can open within your regular browser, and it is a place where you can browse the internet without your “history being saved on your device when your browsing session ends” (avast).

The cookies, which are “little bits of identifying data that follow you around the internet, and other traces from your browsing history aren’t saved after you end your private browsing session” (avast). 

Although it may seem like a good idea to use incognito mode, you should understand that your online activity isn’t actually hidden from websites, search engines, or network administrators. We will discuss later in this article whether an incognito mode is as safe as we really think it is.

Why Use Incognito Mode?

When using incognito mode, you are viewed as a “new visitor” on each website you are on, and every site assumes that it is your first time visiting their page. Here are some of the reasons why people use incognito mode:

  • Avoid saved cookies: Websites that you log into will not save your login or device information; therefore, you can sign in to multiple accounts at once, or a product’s price remains the same. 
  • Hiding search history: Some search engines may be able to see your search history even though you’re in incognito mode, but other people who have access to your device will not be able to.
  • Tracking protection: Since you are using incognito mode to surf the web, your online activity will be protected. You will get fewer targeted ads and suggestions if you don’t sign in to your personal accounts.
  • Hosting a guest: You can surf the internet with a clean slate. 

For example, I use incognito mode to purchase airline tickets to ensure that the price won’t increase. 

However, if I were to do the same on a regular browser, the price may increase since the web page knows that I am interested in purchasing airline tickets for a specific date range. 

Keep in mind, though, that “depending on the browser you’re using, opening a new incognito window while you already have one open may not start a second session” (avast).

Safari treats each private window opened & tab as a new session.

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On the other hand, Chrome treats all incognito windows opened and tabs opened as the same session, and the session ends when all incognito windows and tabs are closed.

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Is Incognito mode really “incognito”?

Does Incognito Mode Hide Your IP Address? 

Although incognito mode hides your search history, it does not mask your IP address, which plays a big part in your device’s identity online. As a result, incognito mode isn’t “enough if you aim to hide your online activity from other users on your network” (avast). You cannot use incognito mode to hide your geo-location, so anyone will still be able to see your country, city, ISP, and zip code. 

Therefore, if you want to hide your IP address and your internet activity from others, you should use a VPN. You can use a VPN along with incognito mode for secured protection. 

Who Can See Your Incognito History?

Using incognito mode is a great way to “prevent your cookies and browsing history from being saved after your session, but that doesn’t mean your activity is completely invisible” (avast). Even though you closed the incognito browser to end the session, the following may still be visible and can identify you if you don’t manually delete your incognito history:

  • Websites you visited: Do not sign in to websites whilst on incognito mode because they will be able to identify you 
  • Network administrators: A network admin can see everything that you do and the websites that you visit especially if you are connected to an organization’s network or the school’s network
  • Internet Service Provider (ISP): all of your online activity passes through your ISP, and incognito mode won’t hide your activity from them; if they want to, they could see the website you access, any files that you download or upload, contents of unencrypted messages and what you search for on Google
  • Search engines: some search engines may be able to see your browsing history even after you have closed the incognito browser  

So, is Incognito Mode as Safe as You Think?

Incognito mode can be “incognito” if you understand and know how to use incognito mode. So, yes, it is safe, but only to an extent. As mentioned in the earlier section, If you want full protection, then you should consider using a VPN on top of incognito mode. Again, don’t forget about what you can and can’t do whilst in incognito mode.

While using incognito mode, you can:

  • Treat a borrowed device like a borrowed one
  • Expect to be hidden, but not 100%

While using incognito mode, do not: 

  • Log into your personal accounts
  • Expect to be invisible 

Please also understand that incognito mode only protects your browsing history and removes cookies once the session is closed. It does not protect you against any viruses or malware if you were to get infected. At best, incognito mode “might be able to remove some malicious cookies, though there’s no guarantee it really does that.” (cactusvpn)

Final Thoughts

Do not only rely on incognito mode because you think that it will keep you safe. Incognito is safe only if you know how to use it and what it actually protects you from.

Incognito mode can be used to have a more private browsing session and can be viewed as a new visitor on multiple web pages.

However, as we have learned, incognito mode has some limitations, making it possible for others to identify your IP and device.

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