What Is Incognito Mode? How It Works and Reasons to Use It

The Neeva Team on 09/01/21

While useful in some cases, incognito mode is a browser feature whose name can also convey a false sense of privacy. Learn about the limitations of incognito mode, as well as the best ways to use it.

While useful in some cases, incognito mode is a browser feature whose name can also convey a false sense of privacy. Learn about the limitations of incognito mode, as well as the best ways to use it.

What is incognito mode?

“Incognito mode” is a term coined by Google Chrome to describe an internet browsing mode in which your web browser automatically deletes your browsing history and cookies at the end of a session. Other browsers, like Safari and Firefox, call this “private browsing mode.”

While the name “incognito” or “private” might suggest that your browsing activity is completely disassociated from your identity online, this browsing mode only hides your activity from others who use your device. It doesn’t shield your identity from sites you visit, nor does it hide your browsing from your internet service provider (ISP) or the person in charge of your network, such as your employer or school.

How does incognito mode work?

There are 3 main things that happen when you use incognito mode.

  1. Browser stops recording history. Most web browsers automatically save your browsing history for you to access. Incognito mode turns off this feature so that you—and anyone else who uses the device in question—will not be able to access your browsing history.
  2. Browser automatically deletes cookies and site data at the end of a session. Cookies and other types of data created during an incognito mode browsing session are automatically deleted when you close the browser window. Cookies are small files that allow websites to remember who you are. They’re used to automatically log you in to a site, remember the items in your shopping cart, or to serve targeted advertisements.
  3. Browser does not remember information entered in forms and permissions granted to websites. If you’ve selected “remember me” on a website that requires a login, your browser will not remember this permission when you are in incognito mode. Additionally, it will not auto-fill forms or suggest searches.

And remember, all of this happens only if you close your browser incognito window at the end of the session!

How to use incognito mode

Most browsers offer some version of incognito mode, or private browsing. Here’s how to use incognito mode in three popular browsers.

To open an incognito window in Google Chrome on a computer:

  1. Open the Chrome browser app.
  2. In the upper right corner, select the More button (three dots), then select New Incognito Window. Your browser will automatically open a new incognito window with the incognito icon (glasses and a hat) in the top right corner.
  3. Alternatively, on the menu bar, select File > New Incognito Window.
  4. You can also use a keyboard shortcut: Ctrl + Shift + n on Windows or ⌘ + Shift + n on Mac.

To open a private window in Safari on a Mac:

  1. Open the Safari browser app.
  2. On the menu bar, select File, then select New Private Window. You’ll see a banner at the top of the new window confirming that “Private Browsing Enabled.”

To open a private window in Mozilla Firefox on a Computer:

  1. Open the Firefox browser app.
  2. In the top right corner, select the menu button (three lines), then select New Private Window. You’ll see a purple mask logo in the top right corner of the new window.

When to use incognito mode

Incognito mode is a useful feature that allows you to quickly move between a personalized version of your web browser and a more impersonal version. Here’s when to use it.

  1. On public devices. If you have to use a public computer, always use incognito or private mode. That way, your personal data won’t be stored in the public device’s browser. The same goes for borrowing a friend or family member’s phone or computer—even if you trust them, you don’t want to put your data at risk if their device becomes compromised.
  2. For an outside perspective. Occasionally you may want to conduct a search without having your previous search history influence your results; or you may want to see what your blog or website looks like from a neutral, outside perspective. Incognito mode can show you what a site would look like if you visited for the first time.
  3. To view sites you don’t want in your browser history. Occasionally you may visit a website that you don’t want saved to your browser history or stored cookies—maybe you’re planning a surprise for someone whom you share a device with, or you want to look up a sensitive health or financial issue. Whatever the reason, incognito mode will prevent your activity from showing up in your browser history.
  4. To see fewer targeted ads. When you use incognito mode, your browser will automatically delete cookies at the end of a session, which means that the next time you browse the web, sites you visited during that incognito session may not remember you, and you probably won’t receive targeted ads from them. This makes web tracking more difficult, but not impossible—logging into a website will allow that site to track you, and advertisers are currently developing methods for tracking users without the use of cookies.

The limitations of incognito mode

Incognito mode can be great for all the reasons listed above, but it has one major issue: If you’re not aware of incognito mode’s limitations, you may assume that your browsing is completely private. “Incognito mode mostly means you are incognito to your browser,” explains Sridhar Ramaswamy, cofounder of Neeva. “You’re not incognito to anyone else.” That means that your internet service provider (ISP) will still know where you’ve been, along with the websites you visit during your “private” browsing session.

Here are some of the biggest shortcomings of incognito mode:

  1. When you log into a site, your actions are no longer anonymous. When you log into a website, you are no longer anonymous to that site—and any other site that it shares data. For example, if you use Chrome’s incognito mode while logged into your Gmail account, Google can track your activities, a practice the tech giant came under fire for in 2020. Most people don’t realize that logging into an account negates some of the protections afforded by incognito mode: According to a 2018 University of Chicago study, 56.3% of people believed that their search history would not be saved in incognito mode, even if they were logged into their Google accounts.
  2. Your location is still visible to websites. When you visit a website, your ISP will automatically provide that site with your IP (internet protocol) address, a location marker that’s sort of like a zip code for computers. To hide your IP address, you can try using a VPN.
  3. Your browsing history is still visible to your internet service provider. Even with incognito mode turned on, your ISP can still see your browsing activity. VPNs can also  hide your browsing history from your ISP.
  4. Your browsing history may still be visible to your school or employer. If someone else—such as your employer, school, or government—runs the network you are using, they may be able to see your browsing history, even when you are in incognito mode.
  5. Digital fingerprinting breaks incognito mode. Digital fingerprinting is a technology that relies on information about your device—such as the type of device and operating system—to piece together your identity. It’s an alternative to third-party cookies that is growing in popularity, since fingerprinting relies on information willingly given by your system. This type of information can be used legitimately, for example to display graphics correctly on your screen, but it can also be abused, and incognito mode won’t protect you from websites that use fingerprinting.
  6. Incognito mode won’t protect you from malware and viruses. Although incognito mode will delete cookies and site data at the end of a browsing session, it won’t delete files you download, including malicious software.

3 ways to make incognito browsing more private

Now that you know about the uses and drawbacks of incognito mode, here’s how to use incognito mode along with other tools for a truly private search and browsing experience.

  1. Use a VPN. A VPN (virtual private network) is a tool that obscures your IP address from websites by assigning you another IP address (or several). It’s a good idea to use a VPN any time you’re not on a trusted network, such as when you use public internet at a café, hotel, or airport. Keep in mind that the VPN provider will be able to see your browsing data, even when you’re in incognito mode, so it’s important to use a VPN service you trust.
  2. 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. And if you want to search in incognito mode, you can simply open up a Neeva incognito window.
  3. Change your cookies settings. Setting your browser to block third-party cookies can provide some tracking protection while in incognito mode. Safari and Firefox automatically block third-party tracking cookies by default, but it’s always a good idea to check your cookies settings, especially if you use Chrome.

The best way to protect your privacy online is to use products that do not collect and sell your data. Neeva is the world’s first private, ad-free search engine, committed to showing you the best results for every search. We will never share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Try Neeva for yourself, at neeva.com.