Incognito Mode on Your Browser. What It Does and Doesn’t Do.
When you visit whatismyipaddress.com, you can see what the web knows about you. The websites you visit and, if they wanted to, see your IP address, country, city, and internet service provider. Businesses often like to know where their customers (or interested prospects) live.
By the way, they can get the information listed above just by knowing your IP address, which is public knowledge. (You can read more about IP addresses here.)
They can’t see the websites you visit as that’s not public knowledge…but someone else can, if they wanted to.
Just who can see your internet web behavior?
Your internet service provider (ISP) who provides your internet connection and IP address, is able to see your online activities. Not that there’s someone doing that actively, daily and with a pen and notebook in hand, but they do have the ability to see your online activity.
They could see pages you’ve opened, the unencrypted chats you’ve had, and a lot more.
“We’ll,” you might be thinking, “what about when I’m using the internet somewhere else, like at school, work or the library. Could anyone see my internet activity then?”
The answer is, yes, if they have a network administrator that keeps tabs on user activity. And they just might, to make sure no one is visiting illegal sites or doing something suspicious that could hurt the network. More than that, they also often have internet filters to keep you from even accessing certain types of sites (you can guess at what some of them might be.)
Okay…is there anyone else who might know what your internet traffic is like?
Well, how about the government?
Just like the cop shows on TV
Your government can also see what you’re up to—that is, if they had a reason to so, plus a subpoena issued by court order and, therefore, the authority to do so. The government wouldn’t be hacking into the network you’re on; they’d be spying on your activity, with the help of your ISP or some other network.
Now the chance of you being on the radar of some government agency is quite unlikely if you’re just an everyday computer user. But you never know what the future could bring.
Is that the end of the list of those who might track your internet behavior? Not quite.
Hackers do it the sneaky way
Isn’t it comforting, at least, to think no one could hack into a network to see your web traffic?
Not so fast.
A hacker that is lurking on a network could do just that. They would see all the traffic on that network, not just yours. That could happen on any unsecured network—which usually means free Wi-Fi at a mall, coffeehouse, airport, hotel or restaurant. If you can hop on a network without a password, it means the network might be vulnerable. (There are real horror stories about that.)
Someone at home could get on your computer and see where you’ve been
If you live with family or roommates and you leave your computer turned on and your browser open, someone could come along and accidently discover what websites you’ve been visiting.
How? All they need to do is click on the History tab on the browser and it will list all the websites you’ve visited. All of them. That history is there for your convenience; it’s there to make life easier. For most of us, that’s okay. But maybe you don’t want others to know what you look at online, simply as a matter of privacy.
How can your turn all of this around? Let’s take a look
Fortunately for those who simply want to hide their browser activity on their computers (from friends and family), there’s a feature called “incognito” mode. The word incognito means hiding your identity. Well, this isn’t actually that. This is hiding your website searches. Hiding the fact that you went to those sites.
And it’s not that it hides it, more than it doesn’t “record” on a sites-visited list.
While many people think the Chrome browser was the first to launch incognito, it was actually Apple Safari that brought private browsing features.
Incognito or private browsing basically hides things from the browser history. What happens in a session stays in a session. As soon as you close the window, all cookies are deleted along with the session history. (For more details on this, see our article on browser history.)
Everything stays private…which is why incognito mode is also called “private mode” on some browsers.
Here’s how you do it.
Check it out yourself right now.
Open the incognito mode of the browser (it’s in the File menu) and then open a website you haven’t visited in a while. Now close incognito and check your history. You won’t find the recently opened website there.
Here’s why that’s handy. If you were trying to shop for a secret birthday present for a family member, your searching safe from prying eyes. That is, if someone came along and used your computer, they wouldn’t see what you’re shopping for.
However, if you think NOBODY could see your shopping ideas, you’re wrong.
As we said earlier, your internet provider might note it, and if you were being spied on they’d see it, and a hacker could have breached the network might track it.
And if you were in the office, the network team saw that, and your boss probably knows about it. If you want to apply for a new job, sending your application using your office computer is not a good idea, even if you use incognito mode.
Not that ANY OF THAT is happening or likely. The point is this—incognito is simply like tearing a page out your browser history.
What incognito can protect
Incognito can protect anything that’s local to your computer – Your browsing history and cookies. When you store any cookies on incognito, they are deleted as soon as the session is closed.
- If you use a shared computer, incognito can be helpful. If nobody uses your device other than you, incognito is pretty much useless.
- And if you think someone might break into your house and access your device just to read your browser history (even if it’s unlikely), incognito can be useful.
- From secretly surfing the web to shopping on Christmas, incognito finds many applications.
What incognito can’t protect
As discussed earlier, incognito doesn’t protect your online activity from spying eyes. People who don’t have physical contact with your device and are monitoring your activities can still see what you’re doing.
It’s not just the ISP and hackers. If you use Google services, they will still get to know it’s you even if you’re on incognito.
And if you’re using a public Wi-Fi, incognito won’t protect your browsing from being monitored or tracked, although that’s pretty unlikely.
However, be aware that public Wi-Fi networks are often monitored by hackers or even by people who set them up.
So, here’s the million-dollar question—is there any way to hide your browsing activity from prying eyes, whoever they belong to?
How to hide your online activity: there is a way
If you’re trying to hide from snoops or spies, a reputable VPN (virtual private network) is the solution.
A VPN is a service that you sign up for online. There are dozens of them, but they’re not all alike.
Once you have a VPN subscription, you simply open the program and activate it the magic happens. In short, your internet connection instantly becomes more private and more secure.
To learn about the basics of a VPN, click the link at the end of this article.
The best of both worlds
However, keep in mind that a VPN will not help you hide your browsing history from family members.
So, what if you want to hide your activity from family members AND your ISP? Well, then mix the two.
Use a VPN with incognito mode. This way, neither your ISP nor your family members can see what you’re up to.
For more information on how VPNs work, read our article that explains it all in simple, non-technical language.