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Incognito mode unmasked: What it does and what it doesn't do

Don't be fooled into thinking Google incognito mode hides everything you do online.
March 15, 2022
Google Chrome Incognito Mode with background

Smartphones are a vital life tool and yet also a privacy nightmare. If you don’t take the proper precautions, you could quite literally expose yourself to unwitting friends or family members who pick up your device and stumble into the wrong app or folder. Thankfully, phone makers offer a plethora of ways to protect ourselves, such as the mysteriously named incognito mode.

But first, let’s back up a second: Use a screen lock. Pick whichever works for you, be it a PIN, password, pattern, print, or face. A screen lock provides the first layer of defense and should be (almost) all you need to protect yourself. There are, however, those with whom we share our screen locks, such as partners or trusted family members or friends (if you’re a parent, don’t believe for one second that your kids haven’t figured out your password…they have).

Read more: Should you use the privacy-focused Brave browser?

Since some people may get past our screen locks, a second line of defense against undue embarrassment is required. One such bulwark is Google Chrome’s incognito mode, or private browsing. Incognito mode isn’t infallible, however. In fact, it has limitations you should know about.

Here’s what Google incognito mode does and what it doesn’t do.

What is incognito mode?

Google Chrome Incognito Mode Youve gone incognito

The word incognito means to hide one’s true identity. Incognito mode on Android devices is just that; it’s a way to hide as you travel the web. As realized in Google Chrome on Android, Incognito mode hides your browsing history so others can’t see the websites you’ve visited. In effect, it masks your footprints across the web.

How to turn on incognito mode

Incognito mode is available in the Chrome browser app on Android phones and tablets and the Chrome desktop browser for Macs, Windows machines, and, of course, Chrome OS.

On your Android device, open Chrome and tap the three-dot menu button in the address bar. A drop-down window appears with several actions available, such as starring the page or opening a new window. One of the options is “New incognito tab.” Tap that, and Chrome will open a new, private tab. You’ll see the little spy-like icon with a fedora and glasses and a confirmation that “you’ve gone incognito.”

Congrats, you are now browsing privately. You can jump between incognito tabs and regular tabs by tapping the tab tool in the address bar. You’ll only be browsing privately when you’re in an actual incognito tab.

What does it mean to browse privately?

Google Chrome Incognito Mode opening new tab

Incognito mode, or browsing privately, is a device-specific safeguard. If you use incognito mode on one device but not another, that second device’s browser history is still vulnerable.

Read more: Best privacy browsers on Android

At its simplest, incognito mode prevents others who pick up the device from seeing your browser history. Chrome itself does not save your browser history or any data you type into web forms in this mode. Google Chrome will not sync your private browsing history across your account, assuming you’re signed into Chrome. Chrome will remember cookies, site data, and permissions granted while you’re browsing. Still, this information is deleted upon closing the incognito tab (of course, you can always delete your browsing history manually any time you choose).

If you use private browsing, no one who picks up your device will know you visited your bank’s website or — ahem — “other sites” which might cause embarrassment.

Some information is still visible to others

Chrome incognito mode
Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority

As stated, incognito mode prevents Chrome from logging your surfing sessions on your phone. It doesn’t prevent a whole range of others from seeing your online activity.

For example, any website you visit will know you visited, as will its advertisers. Any website you sign in to will know you browsed that site because it logged the sign-in. If you’re at work or school, whoever runs the network will have access to your browsing history. The same goes for your internet provider at home. That means AT&T or Verizon Wireless if you’re out and about, or Comcast or Verizon FiOS in your house. Search engines, too, will have access to your browsing history and may even show search suggestions based on where you are or what you are up to.

See also: Can your ISP see your browsing history? Here’s what you need to know.

What can these entities actually see? Here’s a list:

  • Your IP address, which is a way of identifying your basic location.
  • Your actual, real-time activity as you use a website or service.
  • Also — and this is key — your identity if you sign in to any web service. That includes Google-owned sites such as Gmail.
Incognito mode does not hide you from law enforcement.

Incognito mode does not hide you from law enforcement, which can task your wireless or wired internet provider to locate your IP address and reveal your history.

But wait: there’s more. Chrome does not store any files you may download while browsing in incognito mode; however, those files are saved to the main Downloads folder. The files are there even after you close your private browsing session. This means anyone can find and open them.

Any bookmarks you create in private mode are saved to Chrome. That means if you save a bookmark for an adult website or service, it’ll show up in your bookmark folder. Moreover, any preferences, settings, and accessibility adjustments you make during private browsing may be saved to Chrome, too.

See also: Google may be tracking your porn habits in incognito mode

Why bother using incognito mode?

The Pornhub website on a smartphone.

There are specific reasons. You may not be wholly protected while browsing privately, but you’re at least shielded from some embarrassment and the potential of harming your close family and friends.

For example, please use private browsing if your family shares a tablet or PC — particularly if there are kids in your house. Kids can get into trouble on devices easily enough, so don’t give them easy access to your favorite adult or financial sites.

Please use private browsing if your family shares a tablet or PC.

Another example: you’re using a public computer. Say you have to fill out some form on a machine in the doctor’s office or similar. See if you can switch on private browsing mode so others who use the device can’t go back to the page and stumble onto your data.

Last, if you don’t want your partner or significant other to know what you’ve been up to online, private browsing is the best way to keep that information to yourself. This is essential for things like gift-buying and surprise parties.

How do you turn off private browsing?

Google Chrome Incognito Mode multiple tabs

It’s pretty easy. It’s simple to locate since incognito mode runs in its own tab apart from your regular Chrome tabs. Tap the tab button in the upper right corner of the browser, and it should show two series of tabs: regular on the left and private on the right. Private tabs are often colored dark. Tap the “x” button in the top right corner of each incognito tab to close them.

Alternately, Android gives you a really powerful way to avoid trouble. Let’s say you were enjoying some adult content but shut your screen in a hurry and left the tab active in Chrome. Anyone who opens Chrome will land right smack in the middle of that content. Chrome in Android gives you the option to end all incognito tabs from the quick settings menu. It appears as a silent notification. Simply tap the “close all incognito tabs” notification, and it will silently shut everything down on the sly. Crisis averted big time.

Closing incognito mode is critical. Everything remains in the open until you actually close the incognito tabs.

Do other apps and browsers have incognito mode?

They sure do. Google’s own Play Store and Maps apps have Incognito mode. Incognito mode for the Play Store is still in testing and not fully rolled out. The idea is to allow you to browse for and search through apps without having your searches recorded. Incognito mode for Google Maps allows you to hide your travels and your searches. Neither of these solutions prevents other apps from seeing what you’re up to.

YouTube has Incognito mode, as well. It prevents others from seeing your search and view history. The limitations are the same as they are with Chrome.

Safari for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac supports private browsing. Access it by tapping the tabs button in Safari and selecting “Private” to open a new tab. Apple says Safari won’t remember the pages you visited, your search history, or your AutoFill information after you close a tab in private browsing mode.

The Microsoft Edge browser for Windows 10 machines has InPrivate mode, and Firefox supports Private Browsing for most platforms. As with other apps, these prevent the browser from recording your browsing history when in the proper mode. We also like Brave Browser and have a great roundup of all the best web browsers for privacy.

Google Chrome’s incognito mode isn’t a perfect solution, but it does have its uses. Keep in mind, it doesn’t impact most apps at all. If you download an adult content app, that’s totally on you to hide in a folder or lock it down with a passcode.

Whether you have anything to hide or not, safe browsing folks!

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