How to go ‘Incognito’ on your web browser, and what it means

Just don’t confuse incognito mode with “true” privacy!

David bisson
David Bisson

How to go 'Incognito' on your web browser, and what it means

Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera… these are just some of the web browsers available to today’s internet users. While each browser might differ somewhat from their competitors, the major players in the web browsing game all come pre-equipped with a certain set of features.

Today I’m going to talk about one such property known as “incognito mode” (also sometimes known as “private browsing”).

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First of all, what is Incognito mode?

Incognito mode is a particular method of surfing the web via a web browser. It allows a user to hide their web activities from other users on a single, shared personal computer by automatically erasing their browsing/search history and by deleting all cookies at the end of each session.

Sounds interesting. Why would I want to use it?

IncognitoMany think incognito mode is useful only when it comes to helping users privately search for adult content online. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

There are plenty of practical, less potentially embarrassing reasons why you would want to use incognito mode. These include the following:

  1. Privacy on a public computer. Sometimes you might need to log into one of your web accounts from a computer at a library, cafe, or other public place. You don’t want the browser to save any of your passwords, and you also don’t want it to store any of your browsing history so that someone could come across the login page for your personal website. Browsing online via incognito mode will help protect your privacy by not storing any of these types of information.
  2. Multiple accounts. Many web services such as Google allow you to sign into only one registered account at a time. This might be inconvenient if someone maintains multiple Gmail accounts for personal use and work activities. To get around this obstacle, you can open two windows in your browser–one in normal mode, one in incognito mode–and sign in to access your different Gmail accounts at the same time.
  3. Outsmarting paywalls. We’ve all run into paywalls online. They’re those nuisances hidden behind the firewalls of many news and blogging websites that notify us we’ve read the maximum number of articles for free in a given month. It doesn’t take much to run out a paywall’s limit. Fortunately, you can use incognito mode to visit a website an infinite number of times, as a website’s paywall will think you’re a new user whenever you initiate a new incognito session.

I’m in. How do I activate incognito mode on my web browser?

It’s pretty easy. In most web browsers, click on “File” to display a drop-down menu of clickable options. You will have the ability to open up a new tab or a new window using that menu. You can also activate a browsing session in incognito mode.

For Google Chrome, this option is known as “New Incognito Window,” whereas for Firefox, it’s known as “New Private Window.” Click on that feature, and when the new incognito window pops up, you can begin browsing in incognito mode to your heart’s desire.

Firefox 20 private window update

Meanwhile, in Internet Explorer 8 or later you can access what Microsoft calls “InPrivate Browsing” under the Tools menu (or press Ctrl+Shift+P).

(NOTE: You can access incognito mode in major mobile web browser applications, as well. To turn on incognito browsing, simply visit your mobile browser’s “Settings” page.)

Great! I can’t wait to begin browsing the web with true privacy!

Whoa, hang on a minute! No one said anything about incognito mode guaranteeing true privacy.

Sure, incognito mode hides your Internet activities from other users on a shared computer, but it doesn’t hide your search history from the rest of the world. Not even close! Websites can still capture your computer’s identifying IP address, and internet service providers, malicious software and potentially intelligence agencies can track what you’re doing online.

Incognitio old

To better protect your privacy, you should consider using your web browser in tandem with a virtual private network (VPN), which masks a user’s location and IP address.

For added protection, you can dispense with your regular web browser and use the Tor web browser instead.

So all in all…

Incognito mode is a great way to hide your browsing history from local users, but it does not protect you from the rest of the internet spying on you.

What do you use incognito mode for? Let us know in the comments!

David Bisson is an infosec news junkie and security journalist. He works as Contributing Editor for Graham Cluley Security News and Associate Editor for Tripwire's "The State of Security" blog.

18 comments on “How to go ‘Incognito’ on your web browser, and what it means”

  1. bradhaddin

    Yes, I use VPN for the purpose of online privacy which protects my computer data from hackers. Ivacy VPN is the leading VPN provider which has optimized servers.

  2. DB80

    I used to use private browsing, when my internet use was mostly confined to the library, but for two reasons only. Automatically logging out when closing the browser window, and because my habit of clearing the browser history upset other users. I found myself in side other people's mail accounts on a regular basis, so the aspect of being logged out automatically became the most important one for me.

  3. Gordon Hay

    Google/Gmail is perhaps a bad example to use for your point about multiple accounts since it most certainly does allow you to sign in to/view different accounts in separate tabs in the same browser window.

  4. Bob

    I'd like to pick up on a few points which people ought to understand:

    1. (Privacy on a public computer) Using incognito on a public computer does NOT provide you with privacy. Sure, the web browser itself won't keep a log of your activities but using any computer other than your own to log into a private account is very risky. There could be spyware, malware or key-logging software installed. Incognito won't protect the user against their details being captured in this fashion.

    If it's a public computer, e.g. in an internet cafe, then the owner can view in real time exactly what you're doing. Likewise if you're using a library computer their administrator can watch what you're doing as you type. Or your employer might wish to create full audit logs of every website you visit.

    It does not provide privacy. All incognito does is not store cookies, history etc.

    2. (Multiple accounts) Sometimes this works, other times it doesn't. It depends on the service. Some providers detect that you're using incognito and tell you to switch it off before you log in. Other times Google confuses the incognito session with the regular session. The best solution for this would be to use separate web browsers – e.g. Chrome and Edge.

    3. (Outsmarting paywalls) Most modern sites don't rely upon a simple stored cookie to determine how many times you've viewed it. I've come across sites that block an I.P. for a defined period of time (e.g. 24 hours) once you've viewed your quota of free articles. This is bad particularly if you're on a dynamically assigned IP because others won't be able to use 'their' free quota or you might find somebody else has used it up before you.

    Other sites work on the basis that you need an account before you can use your ration of free articles. Incognito helps in neither of these circumstances.

    Do I recommend a VPN? Certainly. It won't provide absolute protection but it will deter a casual eavesdropper; a determined attacker can bypass the protections offered by a VPN.

    David, I'd actually recommend considering people download 'Opera'. It's a free web-browser, nowadays based on Chromium (on which Chrome is based) and they provide an integrated 'VPN' function for free. Technically speaking it's not a VPN (it's more accurately called a proxy) but the advantage is that by simply opening your web-browser all your traffic is automatically funnelled over their network. You still have the same trust issue… you have to trust (like you do with a VPN) that they are not going to monitor you. And again it wouldn't stop an employer monitoring you using various methods.

    Do I recommend TOR? No, no and no. It's extremely slow, a number of sites block users if they detect you're using it, there are malicious exit nodes and it's been shown to be compromised. TOR traffic is also distinctive and makes you a sitting target for interception.

    You could find somebody siphoning your personal details through their service because of how they operate. Unlike a VPN anybody can operate an exit node on TOR. The average user of this blog simply doesn't need the TOR browser and, in any event, it normally can't be installed on an employers network or on a public computer.

    (I know throughout your blog you said that your recommendations didn't amount to 'true' privacy although I think some non-technical people may be lulled into a false sense of security. You either have privacy or you don't. You can make your system more difficult to attack but that is not 'privacy'.)

    1. BaliRob · in reply to Bob

      Bob I agree with you when you refer to some sites blocking when they detect Tor. When I used this VPN my email provider, namely Yahoo, questioned the fact that my service provider was coming through Romania to Indonesia. Fearing Yahoo's possible action I removed Tor from my pc. I also received some mysterious warnings that my pc was at risk from all sorts of attack whilst using TOR.

      1. HOUSE · in reply to BaliRob

        "Fearing Yahoo's possible action I removed Tor from my pc."….sorry BaliRob, but what exactly did you expect Yahoo to do?? LOL, i mean really, who are they, the PC POLICE?? and i receive "warnings" nearly everyday,but, IT IS MY COMPUTER! wow!! some of you people are REALLY out there!!

        1. BaliRob · in reply to HOUSE

          @HOUSE you really are a cocky know all and rather insulting as well. It was obvious that I did not want to lose my Yahoo Mail Service which I have enjoyed since their inception. What do you do all day sitting on your 'Troll' arse – look for people to hurt?

    2. David L · in reply to Bob

      Ummmm…. if you think Opera is a safe way to go, perhaps you missed the notice that they were bought out by some Chinese outfit, and so, now "at least to me" is highly suspect. If I lived in China, I still would not use it. Most traffic and analytics will pass through the "Great Firewall" otherwise known as the state censorship monitor. Meaning that ALL traffic can be intercepted!

      1. Mayan Queen · in reply to David L

        Now I am more confused! Which one then! Which VPN? Opera? Tor?

  5. George

    Um… IE? Edge? MS still commands the largest market share outside of mobile. You lost me on the first paragraph.

  6. BaliRob

    I do not require privacy when searching the Web using a VPN but do resent my government from blocking some 75% of my incoming mail. It is intended to stop Indonesia being tainted by sex but they go too far and many innocuous letters get blocked in the process. I have asked some VPN companies whether there is a way around this but do not seem to understand my requirements. If anyone here can help I would be obliged.

  7. Joe Schmoe

    just delete history and cookies after watching porn.

  8. Xtrah

    Adult content usually!

  9. Colin

    Question, most web browsers have a password filler you can use. If you use a password manager instead, do web browsers keep a record of the passwords, and if so where?

  10. Azero

    There's no option to turn off history/cookies in chrome and be done with it. Incognito is just a placebo button that erases the current session's history/cookie's when we close the browser. I actually think its stupid we have to be bothered with it, lol fire fox was much simpler on vista a few years back, just turn it all off and be done with it.

    1. David L · in reply to Azero

      Firefox now has an option in settings that will block tracking when incognito tabs are used. They use the list curated by Disconnect.

  11. Jonathan

    how do i do it on chrome?

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