What Does Incognito Mean, How Does It Work, and Is It Really Safe?

  • By Steven
  • Published: May 14, 2024
  • Last Updated: May 20, 2024

 

How do you browse the Internet? Using a primary browser, you can turn on “incognito mode,” which increases your privacy on singular devices but is also less concealing than other privacy tools like virtual private networks (VPNs). The functionality of these modes differs between browsers. While the mode offers reliable personal security, it also lacks cybersecurity defenses and is often used by those with misconceptions about how the tool works.

Incognito

So, what is incognito mode? What level of privacy can you expect out of it? How does it do what it does, and what are its limitations? And where does it fall within proper cybersecurity defenses for the public? The answers to these questions depend on the browser, the user, and technical nuances.

What is Incognito Mode? 

The “incognito mode” meaning refers to someone “going incognito.” Most often depicted as a hat and glasses icon, incognito means to conceal someone’s identity or to assume a false identity for a time. The incognito mode of browsers turns this idea into a browser function, where the operating browser cannot save or remember any information on the device with the incognito mode active (more on this later). Incognito mode also has multiple names, depending on the browser implementing it.

What Does Incognito Mode Do

As the name’s etymology implies, incognito mode allows users to browse the Internet without worrying that their search and exploration will get saved to the device’s browser. When incognito mode is active, the device’s browser will not:

  • Save browsing history like searches and clicked links
  • Save computer cookies or automatically fill in passwords for accounts
  • Save site data like theme preferences or signatures
  • Save information entered into forms or shared documents

Moreover, because incognito mode does the above functions (and sometimes more, depending on the browser), some Internet users have misconceptions about what the mode can and can’t do. Despite the name, incognito is not a free solution to explore the depths of the Internet. Still, it is part of good cybersecurity practices, particularly when the device gets shared between multiple people.

How to Turn On Incognito Mode and How to Turn Off Incognito Mode 

Most incognito modes can be turned on and off by toggling the browser setting or opening a new page for general browsing. Most of the time, users can switch between regular and private browsing without losing their interesting search results:

Enable incognito mode Google by opening the browser. Click the three-dot vertical icon in the top right, and from the menu that appears, select “New Incognito Window.” The hat and glasses icon will appear at the top of every window it impacts.

Enable private browsing Firefox by opening the browser and referring to the window’s top right corner. Select the three-line horizontal icon, and select the “New Private Window” option from the menu that appears.

Enable private browsing Safari by opening the browser and tapping the tabs icon (the two overlapping squares) in the bottom right corner. Select “Start Page” from the down arrow menu, then tap “Private.” Finally, tap the plus (+) icon to open the new page.

Enable InPrivate Microsoft Edge by opening the browser and right-clicking the logo in the taskbar. From the options that appear, select “New InPrivate window.” Alternatively, enter the browser, then select “Settings,” and from the “…” menu, select the same option.

How Private Is Incognito Mode?

Google “incognito mode,” and you’ll find many exciting ways to enable it on all your favorite devices. However, unless you know there’s more to it, the tools may have some unsuspected limitations. Incognito and private modes apply anonymity to a user’s browser, allowing them to explore without fear of the browser saving their history, cookies, or caches. However, there are limitations and exceptions to these general rules.

For example, if a user opens a page incognito and ultimately bookmarks or downloads something from that page, a record of that history appears regardless of the mode. Bookmarks and downloads are saved to the device, so they are outside the bounds of incognito mode’s influence.

Private Is Incognito Mode

There are also many other instances of private modes being…less private than their name suggests. Although incognito allows a device’s browser not to store anything, there are still ways that others can discover the activities of an anonymous user. For example, incognito does not stop network administrators, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), or some search engines from seeing or recording the privatized behaviors. Incognito also does not hide a device’s IP address or geolocation, nor does it protect against online threat actors.  

Can Incognito Mode Be Tracked? 

Activities in incognito mode, like searches, can sometimes be tracked despite enabling the private mode. Some websites, search engines, and ISPs have software that can avoid incognito requests; for example, a student using incognito mode on a school computer might still have to answer for their search history if the institution audits them.

Incognito is also susceptible to cybercriminals’ actions. If a device is infected, for example, incognito does not have the option to protect the user from malicious software like malware. Moreover, once malware appears on a device, the threat actor can (likely) see everything a user does, regardless of whether it happens in incognito windows.

Does Incognito Hide IP Addresses? 

Despite the common misconceptions surrounding incognito mode abilities, the private mode does not hide IP addresses or activity from others on the network (or the government); this is a non-issue for most users as the significance of administrators viewing their online interests is not surprising, and they commit primarily legal actions.

However, for other users, this lack of complete privacy can result in issues—particularly when users begin to explore the depths of the dark web. All it takes is one misclick to raise warning flags in an institution or government’s system, triggering an account audit and usually resulting in user consequences.

Why Do People Use Incognito Mode?

Why Do People Use Incognito Mode?

Avoiding Saved Cookies 

Many users enable incognito mode during their usual browsing because it prevents cookies from being saved within a session and helps prevent page tracking across sessions. Cookies are widely used for storing information about the user’s browsing history within a cache; however, they aren’t always welcome on a user’s device. They may maintain an account login or inform third parties of a user’s browsing behaviors. Cookies can even spoil surprises—as when a user searches for gifts to give their friends and partner.

Hiding Your Search History 

Although incognito has limitations, how does incognito hide history in a browser? Incognito mode stops search history from being saved to a device; this is slightly different from “hiding” information, as the term “hiding” implies that the data can be “unhidden.” In comparison, incognito doesn’t save the data a user submits into it. However, don’t be fooled by the promise of anonymity—some software can still bypass incognito settings, read, copy, and even restore old private sessions.

Protecting Yourself from Tracking 

Web tracking is essential for search engines and some platforms, allowing these entities to research a user’s behavior. By analyzing a user’s behavior, these tracking beacons can inform marketers about what a user is interested in, when they are most likely to interact with certain forms of media, and what else interests others of the same demographics. Incognito does not rid users of all web tracking but offers additional Internet privacy where regular sessions do not.

Sharing Your Device Safely 

For most, incognito is a valuable tool that protects personal information in a way that other cybersecurity methods cannot. Account monitoring tools cannot stop a website from saving data submitted to it, but incognito can make those submissions disappear. When a device is shared by multiple people, as in the case of family devices or shared phones, using incognito is an essential step in protecting your information (and searches) from being discovered by others who also use the device.

What are the Advantages of Incognito Mode? 

You Get Privacy on Shared Devices 

Incognito mode enhances privacy on devices used by multiple individuals. It is the best option for maintaining browser-based privacy for everyone who uses the tech because its functions are built into the browser rather than being developed separately. Consequently, private browsing options can offer more device privacy than outside solutions.

You Can Manage Browser Extensions 

Browser extensions store specific data, like website settings, within a device’s browser. Consequently, some extensions can collect and share data, particularly those with third-party affiliates. Users can manage or temporarily “freeze” extensions of the impacted browser—even parental control extensions.

You Can Prevent Some Web Tracking 

Although incognito mode cannot protect against all forms of web tracking, it can contribute to a user’s overall digital privacy. Some forms of web tracking can be prevented by using incognito mode, such as tracking that follows a user’s searches on shopping websites; however, tracking beacons, like those in some email images, are still worrisome.

You Can Protect Sensitive Information 

Incognito modes protect sensitive data and searches from being stored locally; this may not seem necessary for those without company or institution-issued devices. However, maintaining data sovereignty can be challenging for those with these devices. Incognito offers an answer for users to protect their interests (and searches) from those who might benefit from their exposure.

Log into Multiple Website Accounts

Incognito mode also allows users to sign into multiple accounts on the same service device without logging out; this can be advantageous when a user needs to log into multiple accounts and platforms to complete tasks, answer emails, or review the status of purchases based on account ID (like seating-limited concert tickets or auctions).

What are the Disadvantages of Incognito Mode?

Your IP Address is Visible 

One of the most prominent misconceptions about incognito mode is its impact on IP address visibility. Every device that connects to the Internet has an Internet Protocol (IP) address, which reflects interesting, identifiable information about the device and its user. Incognito modes do not hide a device’s IP, which means it is still visible for malicious characters to misuse.

Network Admins Can Monitor You 

Incognito does not stop network administrators or ISPs from tracking and reviewing device activity. Users can work around these monitors using a VPN, but the admin would still see the device interacting with a proxy. On the one hand, this may be enough personal security to avoid institutional monitors; however, it may also not be enough for those using company devices.

Your Account Activity Can Be Tracked 

Incognito mode also does not stop websites or platforms from tracking and saving changes to accounts within their service agreement; this means a user can enable incognito mode to access an account, and while the browser won’t save the sign-in credentials, the platform may continuously track the user while they are in the account.

You’re Still Vulnerable to Malware

Lastly, private browsing modes do not protect against malware, phishing, or other types of cybersecurity attacks. Incognito is a simple AI, one that is limited to completing only the tasks it is developed for. In this case, it only impacts how the browser treats user-submitted information. It is weak, which allows other service priorities to overtake the obligation of saving your data (for better or worse).

Is Incognito Mode Really Safe?

After considering the advantages and disadvantages of private browsing, is incognito safe? It is, and what’s more, it has a significant place within the cybersecurity practices of individuals and companies. Suppose, for example, that a person were to go to a coffee shop, set down their phone, and have it stolen. Much like the face ID and password lock that keeps a device private, incognito mode is another layer of security for when the unforeseen occurs.

Incognito mode allows users to explore the Internet with some device privacy. The mode is available in all the major browsers and can typically be found by accessing the browser’s privacy settings or when populating a new tab or window. Incognito stops a browser from saving any information the user submits, like searches, logins, and certain activities.

However, incognito mode does not provide privacy for authentic cybersecurity. All Internet users must adopt additional privacy measures for comprehensive protection, starting with individual complex passwords and ending with organization-wide policies.

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