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How “Private” Is Private Browsing Mode?

You may think that switching over to incognito mode on your browser gives you max privacy, but the truth is that this feature doesn't work that way.

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What regular browsers do

To understand what incognito mode does do, it’s important to understand how browsers typically work when this feature isn’t engaged. In short, browsers store a history of all of your browsing data. For example, it tracks which websites you visit and on what dates. Or if you complete a form, it will store the data you entered. Some consider this a plus since it allows them to quickly revisit past pages or enjoy the convenience of an autocompleted form. Others may view it as an invasion of their privacy; indeed, these are the 14 creepy things Google knows about you.

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What is private browsing/incognito mode?

When you use a private browsing mode on your preferred browser, it essentially stops tracking the data mentioned above. “Any private browsing tool you use basically changes how your browser behaves. It means that the site can see when you are there, but it will not keep any sort of record when you are gone,” says Lisa Strohman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the founder of Digital Citizen Academy. “In that sense, using a private browser is by no means a perfect solution and definitely will not keep you anonymous online.”

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What private browsing mode doesn’t keep private

The short answer is that, well, private browsing mode or incognito mode (two of many names for the feature), doesn’t keep much of anything secret. Those days are long gone, says Strohman.

“It truly is more about what you don’t want to be found on your devices later, because the Internet and the sites you visit all have the ability to track you from their end and hold that data,” she explains. “Private browsing is only about what your browser is agreeing to not keep on record. There are no secrets when you go online, and there is very little that we can do that does not leave digital footprints trailing behind us.” Find out more about the hidden truth of incognito mode.

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Private browsing also doesn’t prevent spyware or keylogging

“It’s important to keep in mind that using private browser mode does not protect you from any keylogger programs or spyware that may have been inconspicuously attached to some random file you downloaded. This is because it only changes what the browser agrees to track and keep on record for you,” explains Strohman.

In other words, if you’ve already had malicious software downloaded to your computer, the malware is going to continue working whether you’re in private mode or not. If you suspect your computer is infected, cross-check it with these 12 signs your computer has a virus.

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What function does private browsing serve?

So, what’s the point of using incognito mode? Well, it does stop logging things on your browser’s end, which means you can visit websites and not have it linked to your browser. For example, it comes in handy when you want to do a little holiday shopping without your kids finding out or for any other instance when you don’t want prying eyes in your household to track your Internet usage.

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Why you might now want to use private browsing all the time

There’s a common misconception that says you should always use this feature, and Dr. Strohman says that’s not always a great idea. “There is some method to the madness behind the browser cookie system. In short, it helps make the online world a little more convenient to their users,” she says. “For example, if you are commonly going to a site and your browser knows this, it can auto-populate your login, and even recommend certain news stories or items of interest.” Here are some other tools you might consider using to protect your online privacy.

 

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Internet privacy alternative: VPN

“A Virtual Private Network (VPN) increases privacy because it replaces the user’s initial IP address with one from the VPN network, meaning even if you are in California you could appear online to be working in Amsterdam, for example,” Strohman explains. “In addition, VPNs use advanced encryption protocols and techniques to protect all transfers or exchanges of data.”

A VPN is particularly beneficial when you’re browsing the Internet in a public space—say, a coffee shop, the train, or a hotel. In these scenarios, you’re essentially gaining permission (and giving permission) for anyone on that network to walk into your computer or transfer anything into your system without much protection. VPN’s protect against this. To further protect yourself in public spaces, review these 14 things you should never do when using public Wi-Fi.

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Internet privacy alternative: Turn off location tracking

You can adjust your settings on your smartphone to prevent access to your geolocation. This makes it slightly more difficult for apps to locate you, but it’s not foolproof, says Consumer Reports. In terms of privacy, however, this step does provide slightly more compared to simply using incognito mode on your browser.

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The bottom line on Internet privacy

It makes total sense that you want privacy, especially in a world that’s so public. The truth is that computer and Internet tracking rules are forever changing; the second we think we’ve figured out the algorithm to protect ourselves, technology changes.

“Technology is very much like a very fast and powerful car. We would never hand the keys over to an untrained novice driver without education and training. Technology is no different,” says Strohman. “We have to provide education to empower and inspire our travel into the online world to ensure continued advancements that are thoughtful, moral and ethical for all.” You’ll always want to be aware of the 16 clear signs you’re about to be hacked.

Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a freelance lifestyle reporter covering pets for Reader's Digest, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Rescue Pop. She's also a regular contributor to NBC, Real Simple, Brides, Business Insider, and other outlets. Based in Phoenix, Arizona, by way of the Indiana countryside, Wendy holds a journalism degree from the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism and another bachelor's degree in Philosophy. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @wendyrgould.