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.

Tech Tip – Pin Tabs In Chrome To Save Time And Stay Organised

If there are websites that you use regularly, pinning tabs is a way to save time, stay organised, and get right to the websites you need every time you open your Google Chrome browser. Here’s how it works:

– Open Chrome and type in the domain of the required website.

– Right-click on the tab the website is open in and select ‘Pin’.

– You’ll see your pinned tab appear at the top of the browser on the left. Pinned tabs are stored on the left of the window and only show the site’s icon, saving space.

– Pinned tabs stay in place, even when you close and reopen Chrome, so it’s just a case of clicking on the pinned tab (top left) to quickly go to the required website.

Tech Tip – Using Chrome As A Drag And Drop File Viewer

If you’d like to save time and conveniently view various types of files like PDFs, images, and text documents directly in the browser, eliminating the need for multiple separate applications, here’s how to use Google Chrome as simple, all-purpose, drag and drop file viewer:

– Open a new tab in Chrome.

– Drag and drop a document or image file into the tab.

– Chrome will display the file, allowing you to view PDFs, images, text files, and even some video and audio files without needing a separate application.

Tech Tip – Use Chrome As A Simple Note-Taking App

If you’re using Google Chrome to browse the internet and want a quick way to jot down notes or ideas without needing a separate app, this trick will turn a Chrome tab into a simple note-taking app. Here’s how it works:

– Open a new tab in Chrome.

– Copy and paste or type “data:text/html, <html contenteditable>” into the address bar and press Enter.

– A blank page will appear where you can type notes directly.

– You can now bookmark the page to save it for later so you can refer back to your notes within Chrome any time.

Tech Tip – Automatically Block Third-Party Cookies In Google Chrome

If you’d like to protect your privacy and prevent yourself from being tracked by websites other than the one you are currently visiting, there’s a way to automatically block third-party cookies in Google Chrome. Here’s how:

– In Chrome, click on the three dots (top right) and click on ‘Settings’.

– Click on ‘Privacy and security’.

– Click on ‘Third-party cookies’.

– Select ‘Block third-party cookies’.

Tech Tip – How To Get A Full Long Page Screen Capture In Chrome

If you’d like to capture long web pages in their entirety, e.g. for use in documentation, presentations, or competitor analysis, Google Chrome has a lesser-known but built-in way for doing this. Here’s how it works:

– Go to the web page you’d like to capture.

– Press Ctrl + Shift + I (or Cmd + Option + I on Mac) to open Developer Tools, then Ctrl + Shift + P to open the Command Menu (right-hand side).

– In the search bar at the top (next to ‘Run >’) type “screenshot” and select “Capture full size screenshot”.

– The screenshot will be saved in your ‘Downloads’ folder as a PNG file.

Tech Tip – How To Organise Your Bookmarks In Chrome

If you’ve got a long list of bookmarks in Google Chrome that’s not in order, using ‘Bookmark Manager’ can help get your bookmarks organised and easily navigable. Here’s how to use it:

– In Chrome, top right, click on the three dots and select Bookmarks > Bookmark manager.

– Your bookmark list, with a border around the outside, will be displayed in the centre of the screen.

– Click outside the border of the list, right mouse click, and click on ‘Add new folder.’

– Name the folder, e.g. travel, work, food, music, and click and drag bookmarks from your list into the appropriate folders.

– If you want to be more specific and super-organised, you can set up folders within folders.

– Chrome will build a folder menu on the left-hand side of the screen enabling you to easily navigate between your bookmark folders.