Many browsers offer a special browsing option for “private” browsing. Chrome calls this Incognito Mode, Safari and Firefox call it Private Browsing, and Microsoft Edge calls it InPrivate.
Is it actually private?
Incognito, or Private, mode changes a few things about how your browser treats data locally but does nothing at all to improve your privacy on your local network, on the internet, or with any of the sites you visit. Put simply, Private Mode is a badly named option.
So what does Private Mode actually do? According to Google, Chrome won’t remember your history, anything you’ve typed in a field (such as a username, password, etc), site data, or downloads you made. However, the downloads you do make will still be saved on your device. It does about the same on other browsers. In simpler terms, it makes it harder for someone who later uses your machine to know which sites you’ve browsed. That’s all. Maybe this is why it’s sometimes called ‘Porn Mode’.
What Private Mode doesn’t do, is mask your IP address or encrypt your internet connection like a VPN. You can still be tracked, and your browser activity can still be logged by any entity that actively wants to track you. It also doesn’t do anything to limit browser fingerprinting or other tracking techniques.
If you’re logged onto any service—Facebook, for instance— while in private mode, that service can still track you. Cookies and site data will also be remembered until you end the browsing session and private mode doesn’t specifically block any third-party cookies or trackers. Most importantly, your browsing activity will still be visible to the websites you visit, whoever runs the network you’re using the internet on, and your internet service provider.
Long story short, private or Incognito mode only protects your privacy locally—saving you some exposure to people who can physically get to your keyboard.
There are valid reasons why you may use Private Mode and want to prevent anyone who accesses your browser or signs in to your browser account from checking your browser history. It’s a good feature for that purpose.
But if you want privacy as we generally use the word, consider alternative options. If you want to stop your ISP, the websites you visit, or others who may be snooping on your network, from knowing about where you go, what you type, and what you do, then you’ll need to use ad-blockers, tracker blockers, or a VPN to better hide your internet activity.
It’s time to stop thinking of Private Mode as a Privacy tool.