'Incognito Mode' Isn't as Private as You Might Think

Incognito mode

If you have any interest in hiding your online activity from prying eyes, odds are you know about incognito mode. Originally released as a feature in Apple's Safari browser in 2005, private browsing modes are now included in virtually every internet browser under various names -- but just how private are they, really? 

To lay things bare once and for all, here's an important public service announcement explaining exactly what those incognito modes do (and don't) protect you against.

How do I enter incognito mode?

If you're using Chrome or Safari, press cmd+shift+n (or ctrl+shift+n on Windows) to open a private browsing window. If you're on Firefox, press cmd+shift+p (ctrl+shift+p on Windows). Different browsers might use different key combinations to engage incognito mode, but once you've got a private window open, they all operate basically the same way.

What does incognito mode do?

Put simply, using a private browsing window prevents Chrome (or whatever browser you're into these days) from storing information like URLs, cached page text, and records of the files you download. Put even simpler, it's ideal for visiting pages and conducting web searches that you don't want ending up in your autocomplete settings or browser history. So whether you're doing some surreptitious Christmas shopping or late-night porn browsing, you'll wanna switch over to your browser's incognito-mode equivalent. 

There's actually another handy use for private browsing that's got nothing to do with hiding your activity: If someone needs to sign into a site you're already logged into (Gmail, Facebook, Amazon, etc.) on your computer, just have them open an incognito window. It'll let them sign in without kicking you off, and it's easier than opening a totally different browser -- even better, they don't even have to worry about signing out since their session is terminated as soon as the incognito window's closed. 

What DOESN'T it do?

While incognito mode is great for hiding activity from your significant other, you won't have the same luck with hackers or the government. Incognito mode does NOT hide activity from your ISP (Comcast, Verizon, etc.), nor does it prevent the sites you visit from logging your activities while you're on the page. In other words, if you're illegally downloading movies or conducting similarly illicit "research," the government will still be able to obtain records of that activity from the company that's giving you access to the internet.

Lastly, private browsing absolutely does NOT prevent your employer from viewing your activity if you're using a work computer. Many employers use key-logging software to track what you type on company hardware, but even if that's not the case, there's nothing to stop them from viewing traffic to your computer's IP address if you're on their network.

This isn't to say your boss is necessarily watching what you do 24/7. Unless you're doing something to raise red flags, like using a ton of bandwidth to download a 4K rip of Battlefield Earth, the IT department probably isn't following your every move.

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Gianni Jaccoma is an editor for Thrillist, and he browses exclusively in incognito mode. Follow his sneaky internet doings on Twitter @gjaccoma.