Cyber Security & Technology to help you stay safe online

Incognito isn’t the same as being invisible

All web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari, etc.), all offer some form of Incognito mode: In Chrome and Firefox, they call it “Incognito“, in Microsoft Edge, it’s called “InPrivate“. But what does it do?

Looking at it, you get the impression that it makes you invisible and they can’t track you. That’s not what it means. Here, have a cookie…

All websites track you, in some fashion, and the way they track you is a method called storing “cookies” on your machine, for your browser. All it is, is a tiny file that contains a few bits of information. Nothing that says WHO you are, or where you live, per se, but it gives a unique identification to you for that website.

Here’s an example… search for toilet seats on Amazon. Now, go on Facebook. Neither are owned by the same company, and you never told Facebook about toilet seats or posted anywhere that you need one. And yet, you’re now seeing ads for toilet seats in your Facebook news feed.

Websites write cookies to your machine. Other websites will read those cookies, even if it’s not theirs. That’s how one website knows some of your habits, even on sites you’ve never visited before, all because they’re reading your cookies.

Ok, so how does this play with Incognito mode? The web browser opens up a new window, and it’s in a world where there are no cookies. That means, you’re visiting a website as if it’s the very first time, and you’ve never visited any other website before. Why does it think that? Because it attempts to read the stored cookies in your browser but finds that there are none.

Now as you’re browsing in Incognito mode, you’re collecting cookies. Each site you visit stores one or more of these tiny files. However, when you close the browser’s iteration of Incognito mode, it clears all those cookies.

Neat, huh?

But does it make my browsing invisible? Yes, but not the way you think.

Often you see it touted as making you invisible (and perhaps, invincible!), but all it’s doing is giving you a browsing session without websites knowing your actual/historical browsing habits – what sites you’ve visited, which have you logged in, what you’ve searched for on those sites.

So if you want to visit a site like you’ve never visited it before, or want to erase all *evidence that you’ve visited a site, then Incognito mode is the way to go.

*Now when I say evidence, I’m referring cookies that were created during a visit to that site and have it listed in your browser history as a site you’ve visited. If you intend to do something naughty (read: illegal), law enforcement likely still can obtain that information from your ISP (yes, often they know what sites you visit, but only the sites: not always what you search for or the things you see/read on them). Incognito mode will prevent prying eyes in your household from seeing your browsing history, mainly.

There are many good uses for Incognito mode. Hopefully now you know, it won’t make you truly invisible.