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Incognito Browsers: Who Can See What You're Browsing And What Can They See?

Updated September 24, 2018 12.2k views15 items

Internet privacy is such a hot-button issue that it's hard not to find it all a bit worrisome. It may leave you wondering if it's time to start using incognito browsers and online security measures you've never considered before. But exactly how does an incognito browser work and what does it mean to browse incognito mode? Are they effective at hiding or deleting your information, and who exactly do they block out? The unfortunate answer is that incognito mode really isn't as incognito as you might think.

Incognito browsers aren't actually all that complex, though some of the language surrounding them can be. The main question is not always how they function, however, but how well they function. Do incognito browsers protect your privacy from the government, your Internet service provider, or your employer? What is this function best used for, and what should you avoid online? What's the best way for hiding search history, and can employers access or even track which sites you look at? 

These questions may sound like the stuff of Internet conspiracy theories, but personal privacy is important. If you have questions about incognito browsing, this list can give you some answers. Make sure to check these misunderstood info about incognito mode.

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  • Photo: Janitors / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Will Private Browsing Keep Other Applications From Storing And Recording My Information?

    Using a private browsing mode does prevent your web browser from storing data about you and your activity, but it doesn't have the power to stop other applications on your computer from keeping track of what you're doing. If you have a keylogger on your computer, it will still be able to keep track of what buttons you push, and can thereby monitor your searches. Any spyware installed on your computer will also be able to see what you are up to, incognito mode or not, while you are doing the actual browsing.

    Once you're done, however, your history is deleted, so nothing - including any programs or apps on your computer - can go back and see where you went once you end your session.

    And, of course, private browsing won't protect you against most parent lock or parent monitoring software and apps installed on your computer. Mom and Dad will still be able to see if you're visiting any off-limits websites.

  • Photo: thedescrier / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Do The Websites Still Know I'm Visiting Them?

    Yes, they do. Even in incognito mode, your IP address is still attached to your actions and browsing, so when you go to a website, it has a record of you having been there, even if your computer doesn't. The server for that website gets a request from your computer, specifically from your IP address, so it will have that logged and will be able to access your IP information if need be. They will see what parts of the websites you clicked on, how many times you clicked, and anything you decided to save or download. This happens when you stream content, too.

    So, what info are websites getting about you, besides your activity? Your IP address shares your location, your provider, your browser, and sometimes even your physical address. There are laws about how sites can use this information, but it's still all attached to that online address.

  • Photo: Marcie Casas / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Will This Help Me Hide My Porn-Watching Habits?

    This is something a lot of people are pretty worried about, and one of the major uses for private browsing modes. If you are trying to hide your more adult online history from your spouse, your children, or anyone else who accesses that specific computer, incognito mode is incredibly useful. There will be no record saved to that computer about what you have done or seen, and as long as you don't download or bookmark anything, other users will never be the wiser.

    However, your ISP will be able to see where you've been and so will the websites you've gone to. They will have a record of your IP address being there, and will be easily able to trace that information back to you if need be. So, if you're watching illegal porn in your private mode browser, it's likely that someone else is watching you back.

    Some porn site also use things called Super Cookies in order to track your movements across the web, and they can do this even when you're using private mode. They are still tiny files that record you being there, but they sit on the website itself, so that incognito mode is unable to block them from being created. When you come back to the site later, the website will still be able to remember where you were between the visits, and will still be able to suggest specific videos and images based on past preferences.

  • Photo: Niharb / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Is Google Really Watching What I Search?

    Oh, definitely - just maybe not in the way you think. You may notice that ads on sites like Facebook seem to magically adapt to things you like, or things you looked at recently. That's due to Google; as you surf using their browser or search engine, cookies are being put on your computer. Google uses these cookies to track your activity across the web, and then puts up ads you're more likely to click on.

    If you leave your Google account open, this ad suggestion can even follow you between your various devices.

    This is one thing that incognito mode is kind of useful for. When you use a private browsing mode, your browser can't record any history or cookies, which means that you can't be suggested ads that are better suited to your likes. This also means that your searches are going to be less biased, because your Google search will not be adjusted based on your past searches and clicks.

    Of course, if you are in incognito mode and you log into your Google account, you are effectively ending your anonymity and privacy. Google will still know what you're up to, and will be able to keep track of many of your actions.