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Tech Insight : What Does Incognito Mode Actually Do?

Following news that Google may need to pay $5 billion over tracking millions of people who thought they were browsing privately through incognito mode, we look at what incognito mode actually does.

Incognito Mode 

Different browsers have different names for ‘private browsing mode’ including ‘InPrivate browsing’ (Edge), ‘Private’ for Firefox (Mozilla) and Safari, and ‘Incognito’ for Google Chrome.

Those who use Google’s Chrome browser will know that in addition to browsing via a normal window, clicking/tapping on the three dots (top right) allows you to open another browser window in ‘incognito mode.’

Incognito mode is essentially just a setting on your web browser that allows you to go undercover (to an extent) when browsing the internet. It works by removing local data from web browsing sessions, i.e. browsing is recorded in your local search history (any cookies which a website attempts to upload to your computer are deleted or blocked). In incognito mode, other trackers, temporary files, and third-party toolbars are also disabled. An incognito window is not signed to any accounts so can’t be tracked by them. However, in incognito mode a user’s IP address can still be tracked.

Google says of incognito mode: “When you browse privately, other people who use the device won’t see your history. Chrome doesn’t save your browsing history or information entered in forms. Cookies and site data are remembered while you’re browsing, but deleted when you exit Incognito mode.” 

Therefore, when you use incognito mode:

– Your browsing history is (supposedly) private (i.e. it’s not recorded).

– Cookies are deleted, helping to keep your personal preferences private, and hopefully preventing the resulting targeted adverts.

– You can sign into multiple accounts simultaneously, e.g. you can log into a work-related account in an incognito window while also being logged into a separate personal account at the same site in a normal window.

Does Google Still Track You In Incognito Mode? 

Google can still track you in Incognito mode, however the tracking mechanisms are different from regular browsing. Although incognito mode primarily prevents your browsing history, cookies, and site data from being saved on your device, it doesn’t make you invisible online. For example, the fact that your IP address is still visible means that your activities can still be visible to websites you visit, your employer, and your ISP. This means that while Incognito mode offers more privacy from other users of your device, it does not offer complete anonymity online.

The Recent Case 

The recent case involving Google, where the company has agreed to a settlement (to be finalised on February 24) could see it pay out $5 billion following a class action lawsuit. The lawsuit claimed that Google had secretly tracked millions of people who’d been using Incognito Mode between 2016 and 2020.

It’s been reported that when the lawsuit was first submitted, even Google’s own staff joked about how ‘un-private’ the incognito mode was. The lawsuit stated that: “Through its pervasive data tracking business, Google knows who your friends are, what your hobbies are, what you like to eat, what movies you watch, where and when you like to shop, what your favourite vacation destinations are, what your favourite colour is, and even the most intimate and potentially embarrassing things you browse on the internet – regardless of whether you follow Google’s advice to keep your activities ‘private’.” 

How Can You Browse Privately? 

Given that Incognito mode is not completely private, other measures that users can take when they want to browse privately / make browsing more private include:

– Using private browsers. For example, there are now a number of private browsers available, such as DuckDuckGo, Epic, and Brave.

– Using privacy extensions for browsers. These include Privacy Badger, Ghostery, HTTPS Everywhere, Cookie AutoDelete, and more, although some of these are more focused on blocking cookies and tracking.

– Using a VPN to encrypt traffic, and hide your IP address, although they don’t protect you from being tracked, from cookies, from user-agent strings, or through the accounts they are logged into (e.g. Google).

– Adjusting browser settings to block tracking cookies, and regularly deleting browser cookies and cache to remove tracking data and browsing history stored on the device.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

The main point to remember is that incognito mode is not completely private because your IP address is still visible. This means that your activities can still be visible to the websites you visit, your employer, and your ISP. Also, the Google case highlights what a grey area the ‘incognito’ name seems to be, and one of the questions in the case has been whether Google actually made a legally binding promise not to collect users’ data when they browsed in private / incognito mode.

Achieving complete privacy while browsing the internet is actually quite a challenge due to the interconnected and complex nature of online services and the widespread use of tracking technologies. Most websites and online services collect user data for various purposes, such as personalising content, advertising, or analytics. This data collection is often deeply integrated into the infrastructure of the web, making it difficult to avoid entirely.

Therefore, perhaps the most realistic way for users to enhance their privacy is a multi-layered approach. Using a reliable Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a good start, as it encrypts internet traffic and masks the user’s IP address, making it harder for third parties to track online activities. Also, using privacy-focused browsers and search engines, disabling tracking cookies, and regularly clearing browsing history and caches can further reduce one’s digital footprint. However, it’s important to understand that these measures improve privacy but do not guarantee complete anonymity. For instance, a VPN hides your IP address from websites but the VPN provider itself can see your internet traffic unless it enforces a strict no-logs policy. Similarly, while privacy-focused browsers limit tracking, they don’t completely eliminate the possibility of data collection by websites or internet service providers.