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What Good is Incognito Mode?

Question: I use incognito mode in my web browser to keep my online activities private. I mentioned that to a friend and he said it wasn’t private at all. If he’s right … what’s the point?

You’re both right, and you’re both wrong.

Incognito mode in Google Chrome (also referred to as “Private” or “InPrivate” in Firefox, Internet Explorer, Edge, and other browsers) protects your privacy to a point.

It’s critical to know where that is, because beyond that point, Incognito does exactly nothing to keep you more private.

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The Incognito line

The good news is that the point to which Incognito has effect, and beyond which it has no effect at all, is easy to understand.

Incognito affects only the information stored in your computer. Information stored or seen elsewhere is completely unaffected by Incognito.

Incognito does disable extensions

Entering Incognito mode varies based on browser, but in Chrome, click on the ellipsis menu at the right end of the menu bar, and click on “New Incognito Window”.

New Incognito Window

You can browse within that window normally, with the exception that your browser extensions may not be enabled in Incognito. If you need an extension to work in Incognito mode (for example, perhaps you need your password management software enabled) you’ll need to enable it in the browser’s extensions page. When you do, your browser may point out,

Warning: Google Chrome cannot prevent extensions from recording your browsing history. To disable this extension in Incognito mode, unselect this option.

Incognito Browser extensions are one way your activities can be exposed, so disabling them by default makes a lot of sense. You can then choose which extensions you trust.

Incognito does delete history

The primary function of Incognito mode is that it doesn’t save any history. This comes into play when you close the Incognito window or exit your browser. At that time, the following information about your Incognito activities is deleted:

  • The history of websites you visited within Incognito windows (though any bookmarks you create will be retained).
  • The history of files you’ve downloaded within Incognito windows (though the files themselves are left intact).
  • The history of searches kept by the browser.
  • Cookies left by the sites you’ve visited within Incognito windows.
  • Form-fill information entered into Incognito windows that would normally be remembered for future auto-complete.
  • The browser cache related to your Incognito activities.

Any non-Incognito windows are unaffected.

The idea is that once you exit an Incognito window, no trace of the activity that happened within that window is left on your computer.

Incognito does not hide what you’re doing from others

Incognito only affects the data that is kept on your PC.

For example:

  • Your network traffic is unaffected. Your ISP can still see what you’re up to.
  • The websites you visit have no idea you’re incognito. They can still identify you by various means not limited to cookies, and they can still keep a record of your visit.
  • The search history saved in the online account you might have with the search provider, like Google, is not affected.
  • Any malware on your machine can see what you’re up to.
  • It’s unlikely your browser performs a “secure” delete — meaning that the files it created might still be recoverable after your session.1

The bottom line is that Incognito (or Private or InPrivate) mode is great at preventing anyone with access to your computer from easily finding your activities there — but it does nothing to protect your online privacy.

It certainly shouldn’t be considered as any kind of absolute privacy or security tool.

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Footnotes & references

1: This is highly implementation-dependent. Different browsers do things in different ways, ranging from not creating “files” at all, but keeping things in memory, to actually attempting a secure delete. The latter is not something I’d count on if it matters to you.

21 comments on “What Good is Incognito Mode?”

  1. I use Avast’s Safe Zone browser, do you recommend it? It has a bank mode for dealing with your bank and I think it is secure from anyone spying on it. Do you agree? I sure would appreciate your opinion.

  2. When using Firefox or Opera, you can easily start directly in private mode. All you need to do is to edit a shortcut to add « /private» at the end of the target.
    it looks like this :
    “C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\firefox.exe” /private
    “C:\Program Files\Opera\launcher.exe” /private

    It’s highly probable that you can use something very similar with most browsers.

  3. The most applicable comment would seem to be:
    Don’t bother; you will never remember, or be sure of exactly what is affected & what is not.

    • It can certain seem that way. The better rule of thumb is simply this: incognito only affects what’s saved on your computer, period. Information seen or saved elsewhere is unaffected.

      • The fact that bookmarks and downloads aren’t affected also would seem to limit this feature’s usefulness.

        Also: If the browser merely does standard deletes of cookies, forms, cache, history, etc., it seems to me that the only advantage offered is mere convenience, since you could just as well delete all of these things yourself, one by one, and more tediously.

        On the other hand, if “incognito” or “private” mode prevents the browser from creating any of these files or records at all, then it in fact performs a genuine (albeit limited) service.

        My own suggestion, if you truly want to conceal your browsing activities, is to browse not only incognito, but also sandboxed… and connected via https to a VPN.

        Of course, if you need that much security, you probably have greater problems than just private browsing!

  4. if i watch something in incognito mode does video memory get erased after i close incognito browser? Can someone, except from isp etc, like my friends and family see my video memory if i watched something in incognito without having physical acces to my pc or instaling spying programms or something?

  5. Does it protect airline sites from using your recent activity to judge your interest and thus try to charge you more? If not, how do we keep retailers from using our search activity against us?

  6. Okay i’ve read somewhere that when using Chrome or Firefox to stream media files, it is not uncommon for them to use Windows Media to act as the streaming player – files with extensions such as .avi and .wmv. Only trouble is, Internet Explorer keeps a copy of these file names in the IE history, regardless of whether incognito mode was turned on in Chrome or not. I don’t know if that’s true or not and if it’s fixed but i have a few questions i would like answer on.

    I have cc cleaner and had a lot of temporary files from IE to clean. Is it because of all the videos i watched in incognito mode on chrome or could it be something else? I dont use IE.

    How long are temporary IE files stored?

    And if it’s not because of the videos what could have caused for me to have so many temporary IE files to clean?

    Thank you, much appreciated

    • How long the files are stored depends on a few factors. I believe they stay until the space allocated for temporary files is full and the older ones are deleted to make space for the newer files. You can manually clear the cache and history by typing CRTL+SHIFT+DEL from most, if not all, browsers and then ticking the kinds of information you want to delete. Some browsers have a setting to delete all those upon exiting the browser. You can also run CCleaner to accomplish that. CCleaner is probably the most thorough as it removes file from the Temp folder.

  7. Pretty much all screen capture plugins can take screenshots of a whole page. I am using Nimbus but they can pretty much all do it. With Nimbus, you can select between capturing the whole page, only the visible part or a selected area … then you can edit it if you need (crop it, blur some parts, add arrows to point something, add texts, circle things, etc…). I really recommend it instead of the one you talked about in the article.

  8. Isn’t clearing your browser histories and cookies effectively the same as using incognito or in private browsing? Some, if not all, browsers have a setting to allow you to erase those automatically on exiting the browser.

  9. Seems to me what’s really needed here is a browser that encrypts all bookmarks, history, autofill, and downloads, has an integrated VPN, and transacts business with it solely via end-to-end encryption beginning at the browser. Don’t know how all that would work, though, and I doubt that all of it is even possible.


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