Web browsing in incognito mode means your browsing history and cookies are gone as soon as you close your browser. But this doesn’t mean that every trace of your activity vanishes. The truth is: Even when browsing in private, you leave behind crumbs of evidence about who you are and where you go online.
Uncovering your private browsing history is not as straightforward as looking up your normal browsing history. Read on to learn what private browsing really means, how to find your private browsing history, and how to delete it.
Private browsing: What it is and what it isn’t
There are a lot of misconceptions about private browsing. While it can be useful in certain circumstances, going incognito can also give you a false sense of security and confidence if you’re unaware of its limitations. Here’s a brief rundown:
What is private browsing (also known as “incognito mode”)?
Browsing the web in incognito mode means your web browser automatically deletes your browsing history and cookies at the end of the session. The term “incognito mode” was coined by Google Chrome. Other browsers, like Safari and Firefox, call theirs “private browsing mode,” but both terms refer to the same idea. Certain secure web browsers—sometimes called private browsers—work exclusively in private browsing mode.
When in incognito mode, your browser:
- Stops recording your browsing history. By default most web browsers automatically log your history as you surf the web. Incognito mode prevents this feature, meaning your browser no longer records the sites you visit.
- Automatically deletes cookies at the end of a session. Cookies are like nametags, stored on your device, that allow the websites you visit to recognize you without having to store the information on their own servers. Cookies are used to automatically log you into a website, remember the items in your shopping cart, or to serve you targeted ads—unless you’re in incognito mode, which automatically deletes this data at the end of a session.
- Doesn’t remember the information you enter. In incognito mode, even if you selected “remember me” on a website that requires a login, your browser won’t remember this permission, nor will it automatically fill forms or suggest searches. It’s like starting from scratch.
Note: All of this happens only if you close all of your private browsing windows at the end of the session.
When should you use private browsing?
Incognito browsing can be one of many tactics you employ to shield your browsing activity. Go incognito if you:
- Want a bit more privacy. This is especially true if you share your device with others, or if you’re using a public device. Instead of having to clear your browser history when you’re done, temporary data is automatically cleared at the end of your private browsing sessions. Incognito mode is also great for warding off-web trackers from sites like Google, for example, which, given access, track your location and collect other data.
- Want to protect your private accounts. Non-private browsing modes retain information about your online accounts, like your usernames, passwords, and other sensitive data, to make it easier to log in the next time you’re online. But that’s not always ideal.
- Want to log into multiple accounts at the same time. Incognito mode allows you to log into two or more different accounts from the same provider in separate windows.
- Want to browse without your history influencing your experience. Websites want to tailor ads and content to your liking, but you may want to see what a website looks like if you’d never visited it. In incognito mode, it's like visiting every website for the first time.
- Want to see fewer targeted ads. Going incognito conceals your identity, meaning the ads that usually follow you around the web (thanks to cookies) no longer know who you are. It’s like you’re visiting every page for the first time. This also means that sites can’t serve you targeted ads later on based on your private browsing activity.
Can private browsing history be traced?
Despite what words like “incognito” and “private” suggest, private browsing isn’t the silver bullet solution to privacy that it’s sometimes made out to be. It doesn’t mask your identity or your browsing activity, and it doesn’t make your browsing totally untraceable.
“Incognito mode mostly means you are incognito to your browser,” explains Sridhar Ramaswamy, cofounder of Neeva. “You’re not incognito to anyone else—including your device.”
Here’s how your browsing activity can still be seen in incognito:
- Your internet provider can still see what you’re up to. Private browsing doesn’t hide your browsing from your internet service provider (ISP) or whoever is in charge of your network, like your employer or school. Regardless of your browsing mode, they still know where you’ve been online.
- Your device still contains traces of your activity. Downloaded files and bookmarks are still saved on your device, even if you’re browsing privately. It’s also possible to recover fragments of your browsing history on your device through the DNS cache, which requires third-party software in some cases. (More on this below.)
- You’re no longer anonymous when you log into a site. Going incognito doesn’t mask your identity from the sites you log into. When you log in, you’re essentially allowing the website to track you, and whatever personal information or permissions you granted the site when you signed up still apply. Using Chrome while logged into your Google account, for example, means your “private” browsing activity can still be logged, depending on your account settings.
- Your location is still visible. Your ISP automatically gives your IP address to every website you visit. Your IP address is a unique number identifying your device, which helps deliver content from the internet. But because IP addresses are assigned geographically, like phone number area codes, they can indicate your general location.
- Digital fingerprinting can break your cover. Digital fingerprinting is a tracking technique that uses information about your device, such as the type of device and its operating system, to piece together your identity. It’s an alternative to third-party cookies that’s growing in popularity. Incognito mode doesn’t protect you from websites that use digital fingerprinting.
- Incognito mode doesn’t shield you from malware. Incognito mode means your browser deletes cookies and site data at the end of a session, but it won’t delete the files you download, including any that contain malware. You’re vulnerable to malware whenever you’re online, incognito or not.
How to see your private browsing history
It’s not as easy as clicking the History tab in your browser. But depending on your browser and your operating system, there are loopholes that let you see the sites you visited while browsing privately.
For Windows users: the DNS method
If you’re using Windows you can look into your DNS cache to see your private browsing history. (Apple’s macOS doesn’t offer a straightforward way to view cached DNS entries.)
DNS, which stands for Domain Name System, is a web service that translates a domain name into an IP address to connect you to a website and load its resources. When you type a URL into your browser’s address bar, it sends a request to a DNS server, which matches the URL to the site’s IP address and returns it to your browser. To expedite this process the next time you make the same query, the information gets recorded on your device in a temporary database called a DNS cache—even when you’re browsing in incognito mode.
Note: Thanks to recent updates, Google Chrome and other Chromium-based browsers—like Microsoft Edge and Opera, which are based on Chrome’s open source code—now keep a built-in DNS cache, separate from the one stored on your device, meaning this method may no longer apply if you’re running these browsers.
Using the command prompt, you can view your browsing records by accessing your DNS cache on a Windows device. Here’s how:
- Open the command prompt by clicking on the Windows icon and typing cmd. Select Run as administrator.
- In the black command window that opens, type ipconfig/displaydns and press Enter to see your DNS cache history.
You should now see a list of all of the websites you recently visited—including the ones that don’t how up in your normal browser history—along with access details and other information.
For Windows or Mac users: the third-party app method
You can also view your mobile devices’ incognito browsing history by downloading one of many parental control apps with specially designed features. These apps are easy to use and provide reports that list the websites you frequented, “in private” or not, along with information like the date, time, and the number of times you visited. Here’s a shortlist of apps that can uncover your incognito history:
On desktop and mobile:
- Hoverwatch (Android, Windows and Mac OS X)
- Famisafe (iOS, Android, Windows and Mac OS X)
- KidsGuard Pro (iOS and Android)
- mSpy (iOS and Android)
- Spyzie (iOS and Android)
- FoneWatcher (iOS and Android)
- MoniMaster (iOS and Android)
How to delete incognito history
Again, thanks to your DNS cache, you still leave traces of your private browsing activity on your device. But you can delete this history on both Windows and macOS, even if you can’t view it on the latter. To do so, you have to manually delete—or flush—your DNS cache, which removes the URL queries your system recorded. This process depends on your operating systems.
- Open the command prompt by clicking on the Windows icon and typing cmd. Select Run as administrator.
- In the black command window that opens, type ipconfig/flushdns and press Enter to clear your DNS cache history.
There’s now no record of the websites you visited on your Windows device.
- Open the Terminal via your Utilities folder (Shift + ⌘ + U) in Finder or by typing Terminal in Spotlight (⌘ + Space).
- For macOS versions from OS X Lion through to macOS Big Sur, type sudo dscacheutil -flushcache;sudo killall -HUP mDNSResponder into the terminal window. (If you’re running OS X 10.10.1, 10.10.2, or 10.10.3, type sudo discoveryutil udnsflushcaches;sudo discoveryutil mdnsflushcaches instead.)
- When prompted, enter your system password to clear your DNS cache.
There’s now no record of the websites you visited on your Mac.
More ways to protect your privacy online
Beyond clearing your private browsing history, you can take extra steps to protect your privacy. Combine these solutions with incognito mode for a more private browsing experience:
- Use a VPN. A virtual private network (VPN) masks your IP address and encrypts your web traffic, allowing you to minimize others’ snooping. Keep in mind that your VPN provider can still see your browsing data, even when you’re in incognito, so choose a VPN service you trust.
- Use a private search engine like Neeva. Neeva is an ad-free private search engine that only uses your search history to improve your experience, not to serve you ads. If you want to search in incognito mode, you just open up a Neeva incognito window.
Change your cookies settings. Setting your browser to block third-party cookies can give you tracking protection in incognito mode. Safari and Firefox block third-party tracking cookies by default, but it’s always a good idea to check your cookies settings, especially if you use Chrome.
Ready for a private search experience that was built for people, not data mining or advertising? Try Neeva, the world’s first private, ad-free search engine. We are committed to showing you the best results for every search. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Try Neeva for yourself, at neeva.com.