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What Does Google’s ‘Incognito Mode’ Actually Do?

What Does Google’s ‘Incognito Mode’ Actually Do?

Odds are, you’ve been using incognito mode wrong. Many people wrongly assume that this mode hides their browsing history and keeps it private. It doesn’t help that incognito mode is also called private browsing sometimes.

If you are using incognito mode to keep your school, work, or wifi provider from seeing your browsing history, you’re out of luck. It doesn’t work like that.

That doesn’t mean that incognito mode is useless; it can be a handy function. But, it does mean that you should probably be using it differently. Let’s go over what it actually does and how you should be using this misunderstood tool.

What Is Incognito Mode?

You’ve probably seen the word “incognito” pop up in your browser, but what does it actually mean? And is it actually a helpful tool? It turns out that incognito mode is pretty useful, but it’s not the best way to protect your privacy.

Incognito mode was originally created by Google as a way to protect user privacy. It was first introduced in 2004 and became available in Chrome just a year later.

In this mode, you can browse websites without leaving a record of your activity on your computer or on a site’s servers. This means that any cookies set by websites will be cleared when you exit incognito mode.

What Does Incognito Mode Actually Do?

incognito mode
In incognito mode, the browser creates a temporary session that is isolated from its main session and user data.

Well, if you’re looking for something embarrassing, like that old dating profile you had on MySpace, or want to check out an article about what happens when you eat tin foil, then incognito mode is great!

You don’t have to worry about someone else seeing what you’ve searched on your device. This means no awkward conversations about why exactly someone would want to look up “how long does it take for diarrhea to go away?”

When you first start using your browser, you probably don’t think about what goes on behind the scenes. And when you’re in incognito mode, it might not look different at all. It’s actually doing something, but probably not as much as you might think

So, what does it actually do? In its current form, incognito mode just keeps things like cookies from being saved on your device. So, those embarrassing searches won’t show up in your history.

Private Browsing

Incognito mode is often referred to as “private browsing,” and you may see it referenced as such in other articles. It’s a setting that allows you to browse the internet without leaving any traces of your activity on your computer or phone. 

When you turn on incognito mode, your search history will not be saved, none of your cookies will be saved, and any temporary files will be deleted when you close out of them (instead of staying in place until their expiration date).

The main difference between regular browsing and private browsing is that normal browsing leaves traces behind for websites and advertisers to use for ad-targeting purposes. Private browsing still leaves some traces of your activity, but not as much.

Incognito Mode And Guy Incognito

Incognito mode has been compared many times to the Simpsons’ Guy Incognito. Guy Incognito is pretty much just Homer Simpson with a tophat and mustache. 

This comparison is drawn because Guy Incognito barely looks any different from Homer. Like incognito mode, Guy Incognito clearly didn’t care all that much about protecting his identity.

So, as the comparison implies, when you use private browsing, your data isn’t actually protected. It is slightly (very slightly) disguised, however.

Does Google Still Track You?

incognito mode
Google tracks users’ activity across many non-Google websites and apps.

Google is famous for having an uncanny ability to track you. They can tell if you’ve been searching for something, or if you’ve been on the same website for a long time. They can even guess where you live and what kind of phone you have. But does it still track you in incognito mode?

The short answer is yes. Google does track you when you’re in incognito mode. It doesn’t collect as much data as it does in normal mode, but it still collects some information about your activity.

However, the company says that it only collects “non-personal” information (for example, what websites you visited) and doesn’t store any of your search history or cookies from incognito mode visits.

That is, however, definitely up for debate.

Is Incognito Mode 100% Private?

It’s likely that private browsing isn’t as good as you might think. As of 2022, at least one lawsuit is in the works that is specifically about incognito mode misconceptions. Google has been sued plenty of times about various dealings, but those lawsuits have been directed at other aspects of the company. 

So, when it comes down to it, incognito mode is not 100% private. A wifi owner and other parties still have access to your information and IP address. While it is more private than general website browsing, it is not much of an improvement.

There has reportedly even been a push from Google employees to, “make incognito mode truly private.” Changes will likely be made in the future, but it is uncertain when those will happen and what they will look like. 

At the end of the day, there have been literal lawsuits over what incognito mode does and doesn’t do. So, there is a lot of confusion and it is probably best to look for some alternative options.

What Is a Better Alternative?

What is a better alternative to incognito mode depends on what you are using it for. If you have been using it to browse sites because of security concerns, you might want to look into a VPN or other cybersecurity options.

The alternative does not have to be expensive or require a big change. Just looking into the basics of browsing the internet safely can make a world of difference. Checking how different sites use your data and managing your cookies can also be helpful.  

If you use private browsing to get around paywalls or avoid subscribing to newsletters, you can use options like 10 Minute Email or 12ft Ladder. You might also be using incognito to avoid cookies being cached.

In that case, double-check your settings to see what information you give sites access to. You can also clear out your cookie history periodically and, depending on your specific browser, you can also delete cookies for a specific site. 

What Should You Actually Use Incognito Mode for?

Incognito mode means your browsing history isn’t saved directly onto your device. So, you could use it to shop for a surprise for a significant other who shares a computer with you. You could also potentially use it to get around paywalls when a site only lets you have access to a few articles each week.

Although, since your IP address technically stays the same, that might not always work. While incognito mode is not a great security solution, it can still be useful. For the time being, there is no harm in using this system. So, if you are in doubt, go ahead and use private browsing.

Needless to say, there will likely be changes to the Incognito Mode system coming down the pipeline. Private mode can be a good tool now that you know how and when to use it, but keep an eye out for announced changes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you be tracked in incognito mode?

Incognito mode keeps your phone from logging information and tracking cookies. So, in that regard, you aren’t being tracked. However, information like your IP address is still visible. If you have logged into a website, it can also still show other users that you are online.

Is incognito mode really private?

No, incognito mode isn’t particularly private. The main thing it does is keep your cookies from being stored. Still, your IP address is not hidden and the wifi owner can potentially dig up your search history.

Can a wifi owner see what sites you visit in incognito mode?

When you use incognito mode, your device won’t remember the sites you visit, but the router will. For that reason, a wifi owner can go back and see the sites you visit in incognito mode.

What is incognito mode most used for?

People use incognito mode when they don’t want their search history to be saved. That could be for anything from looking up embarrassing terms to keeping a gift a secret.

Is incognito mode better than private?

Incognito mode is technically considered private browsing. It is very different from using a system like a virtual personal network (VPN). As far as security is concerned, incognito mode isn’t very good.

Will incognito mode prevent hackers?

No, incognito mode doesn’t prevent you from being hacked. This is because incognito mode doesn’t hide your IP address. So, outside parties can still see your information and you are still at risk of malware when using incognito mode.

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