Do Incognito Browsers Really Protect My Privacy?
Chances are, you would very much like to get on the internet and do what you need to do in peace and privacy without anyone recording what sites you visit, how long you linger on a page, record what you purchase, and more. Moreover, you’d probably also like it if no one were tracking your activity subsequently shared that information with a bunch of other lurkers who might use your information for their benefit.
But how can you make that happen? Is it even possible? Do incognito browsers really protect your privacy? And what about anonymization tools…do they work?
The answer is: sort of…
Private browsing is a lot like winter clothing: Layers are important
Online privacy is best achieved through a system of layering. No one tool will take care of it all. Unfortunately, many people think browsing in incognito mode has them covered. It doesn’t.
When you open a browsing session in “incognito mode”, as it’s known on Chrome (it has a different name on each browser), that doesn’t stop the websites you visit from collecting some types of data, such as your location, the type of device you used, and what browser you’re on.
This activity is known as “fingerprinting.” They can even follow you to the next site to sell you stuff. The sites you visit will not recognize you in the same way they would if you were logged in as you. They will mostly treat you as a new user, like your first ever day on the internet, where none of your preferences or logins are known.
So long as you don’t log in anyplace and you be sure to reject cookies – the tracking pixels you generally agree to in order to use most sites – you will remain incognito. You can do this on your phone, too. If you have an iPhone, for example, it’s called private browsing.
The art of layering
So how do you layer to achieve maximum browsing privacy? You might begin with tools that help you discover exactly how exposed you are when you’re browsing on the internet.
PC Mag’s informative piece on staying anonymous online lists several sources that show how you’re being tracked. These tools include BrowserLeaks.com and EFF’s Panopticlick tool and its extension, Privacy Badger, that monitors sites that monitor you.
In addition to incognito mode and anonymization tools, you might consider some of the extensions on Chrome that protect you from unwanted privacy intrusions or the Ghostery browser extension which blocks trackers and advertising on most browsers.
All of this is only private to a point, though. For one thing, many companies have found a way to spot when people are visiting in incognito mode. When some readers tried to use the tool to bypass the paywall and sneak more free articles from media sites, The New York Times and other sites figured out a way to recognize that they were masking their IP addresses and thwart them.
You also won’t be incognito to your employer, school, or whoever might be managing your browser. So, say you’re on a computer at work and you go incognito to hunt for other jobs, if your browser is being managed by your company, your boss can still see what you did. Here’s how to check if your Chrome browser is managed.
50 shades of online privacy
Some browsers are better at incognito than others. For example, Safari introduced the concept of private browsing in 2005, and, like Firefox, already blocks more tracking of users’ data than the most popular browser, Chrome. But if you want to increase privacy, you should also enable Chrome’s feature that blocks websites from following you from one site to the next in incognito mode. All browsers have their own version of this as well.
Incognito’s primary purpose is to more or less thwart the internet at large from tracking you and to keep your computer’s browser from compiling a record of your activities. But what do you do if you want to keep other people who have access to your computer from knowing what you’ve been doing? Incognito will help you out, but you can also just erase your history for a period of time, say the last hour, with many of the same results.
For an even more private browsing experience, you can get a virtual private network or VPN that will more effectively mask who and where you are. A VPN incorporates a proxy server, so instead of the data being collected on your computer, it’s collected on the server, which gives you an added layer of privacy. Some of the leading VPN tools include:
Online privacy has a price
Good VPNs cost money. Express VPN costs about $100 a year after the introductory period, but it can not only mask your identity but also make it appear that you’re in another part of the world. This is enormously helpful if you need local search results from a place you aren’t. You also get different options on streaming sites like Netflix, which is fun.
Some companies offer a VPN service for free, which is a misnomer experts say because while they don’t charge you money, they instead collect your data and use that as currency – exactly what you’re trying to get companies and others to stop doing. Your data is probably more valuable than you know and, as with many things on the internet, if you’re not paying with cash you’re paying with data.
A paid VPN, however, can offer a hardy layer of security and is well worth what is typically a minimal investment. The downside is that VPNs can wind up gumming up your system (I speak from personal experience) and depending on your internet speed and other factors, may have to be turned off and on (just like any other app on the computer) to get things running optimally again.
Going Hardcore: Tor
The Tor network is a free, open-source browser that employs an “onion router” that bounces traffic through random nodes, encrypting it with each bounce, which makes it difficult to track. This is where the Dark Web lives — a safe haven for whistleblowers, human traffickers, drug dealers, hitmen, and those who don’t want their views censored.
If you really want privacy, you can pretty easily download and install Tor just like any other browser, with some extra steps if you’re in a corporate setting, or at a university, where it is banned. It’s easy to use, too, with a couple of caveats. One is that you don’t necessarily know who you’re dealing with on Tor. Some of your fellow Tor users are involved in some of the most horrific crimes, so you have to tread and shop carefully.
Another downside is that all that security can really slow down a browser. Many experts say performance suffers. But again, the question is where privacy falls on the list of your priorities.
A new internet?
In the not-too-distant future, there may be a new internet, created by Tim Berners-Lee, father of the old one. Berners-Lee doesn’t like what his brainchild has become and is launching a new internet called Inrupt that protects user data.
But until that happens, we’re stuck with the old internet, the one that offers us lots of free stuff for the price of our life’s information. And there aren’t very many tools that will let us continue to use the old internet without coughing up that data.
Watch out for AI
For some people, the knowledge that companies are using AI to comb through their data is as violating as having someone rifle through their underwear drawer. Such people don’t mind going through the time and effort to employ a variety of online privacy devices such as a multi-layer protection mechanism with a secure browser, the use of a router, the use of a password manager, the effort to accept only certain cookies— if any—and so forth.
For others, the convenience of having their browser serve up stuff they use all the time and not demand that they log in over and over seems a worthwhile tradeoff for having entities track them.
Of course, the only currency that can’t be regained is time, and having to log in each time you go to a site or search again for the item or the news article you wanted to revisit can feel like it costs too much time and energy.
One thing seems assured, however, unless Berners-Lee can make privacy more lucrative than data collection, we all need to be far more conscious about how we protect our data, if and when we choose to do so.