How private is “incognito mode?”

Dec 1, 2023, 5:14 PM

a person types on a laptop...

(Igor Mazej, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

(Igor Mazej, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

SALT LAKE CITY — Have you ever used “incognito mode” while browsing on Google Chrome? A similar service on Firefox is called private browsing. If you hover over the icon for your search engine and right-click, you’ll see the option for the incognito search, but what does it really do?

“It’s kind of a misnomer in some ways,” said Christina Baum, Vice President of Digital Transformation and Chief Information Officer for Utah Valley University. “What it does, actually, is only track cookies within that incognito session. When you close that session, the cookies are removed.”

Baum says cookies are essentially just “little bits of code” left on your machine to track where you go, what you see and what you’re doing within a session.

“It’s kind of a misnomer because people think it will protect them from perhaps malware, ads or tracking and, in some ways, it does not,” she explained. “Malware can still get through just like it can on any other browser session.”

People think when they’re in incognito mode that they can’t be tracked, but ad trackers are craftier and craftier.

“They’re able to have a digital fingerprint where they can actually look at what browser you’re using, what add-ons you may have installed, even your IP address,” Baum said.

When should I use incognito mode?

Using incognito or private browsing can be valuable if you’re using a public computer or sharing a computer.

“That’s a valuable time to use it because you don’t want your search history to remain after the session is closed,” Baum explained.

For instance, maybe you’re sharing a family computer to look up Christmas presents. “You might not want your kids to be able to look back at your browsing history when you close that session,” Baum advised.

If you’re really looking to protect your privacy, you might try a whole different browser than Chrome or Firefox.

“There is one called Brave,” Baum shared. “It’s an open source. They get their revenue through banner ads, but they’re not targeted. They don’t have the same trackers and cookies being stored. So, it allows you to search in a way that protects you a little bit more.”

Firefox also has an added privacy feature. “Facebook Container” is a built-in Facebook blocker that prevents the it from tracking you on other sites.

“If you want more security and privacy, you can also use a VPN,” Baum said. “A Virtual Private Network is essentially a kind of tunnel that obscures your IP address, but that’s not foolproof either.”

Will you accept cookies?

As you visit new websites for Christmas shopping purposes, you’ll be asked repeatedly, “Will you accept cookies?” Does it matter if you accept them or not?

“If you can, click past that request,” Baum said. “But no matter whether you accept or reject cookies, these sites are going to use cookies to track you in some way.”

Unless you’re on the Brave search engine or some similar browser that doesn’t save your search history.

“It’s important to remember that when something is free, like Facebook, then you’re the product,” Baum advised. “Your data becomes the product the company is selling. So be smart as you’re browsing.”

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How private is “incognito mode?”