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

Updated September 24, 2018 12.1k 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.

  • Photo: Key Foster / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    How Much Information Does My Browser Usually Store?

    When you visit sites and search for stuff, your browser stores certain data concerning your Internet history. For example, when you visit a specific site, your browser logs that visit into your browser history, and will also save cookies from the websites. It also saves form data, which helps you fill in passwords, addresses, and other information more quickly.

    Cookies are itty bitty files that are stored on your computer, designed to contain very specific data about you and your activities. Web servers can access this information later; it allows them to tailor ads and pages to your preferences, without you having to do a thing. In theory, cookies are pretty cool.

    However, cookies also temporarily save a history of files you've downloaded, passwords, searches, and parts of web pages. This means that if you start to type in a search, it may fill in the rest if you've made a lot of similar searches in the past. This can be problematic if a lot of other users look at your computer, and it means that a lot of sites are getting tiny pieces of information about you.

  • Photo: ssoosay / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Does Incognito Mode Store Any Information On My Computer?

    You can keep websites from storing information on your computer to a certain extent, through privacy settings, by clearing your cache, and by deleting and disabling cookies. Incognito mode, however, prevents your web browser from storing that information in the first place. You can visit various websites, make searches, and click on a whole bunch of images or links, and your browser won't be able to fill in any terms later, those sites won't show up in your history, and anyone who sits down at the computer will have no idea what you were just doing.

    For the most part, incognito mode means no cookies, either, but some may actually be stored while you're browsing. But all that goes away when you close your browser window and end your session. It will even prevent websites from using the cookies stored on your computer to track your visits and adapt to your preferences with ads.

  • Photo: JeepersMedia / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    How Much Information Does Incognito Mode Allow My Internet Service Provider To See?

    Given recent law rulings, you might be pretty concerned about how much information your Internet service provider is getting about you. You may also be wondering if private browsing modes can help hide what you're doing from their collection. The unfortunate answer is that it doesn't hide anything at all from your ISP.

    Because incognito mode just stops cookies and history from being stored on your computer, your provider will still be able to see everything you do if they check your activity. They will know what websites you visit and what files you download, all because they can see what your IP address is doing.

    It's also worth noting your Internet service provider can install Internet tracking cookies onto your computer, or even access your search history directly to track your activity. Incognito mode won't stop that from happening.

  • Photo: US Department of Education / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Will Incognito Mode Protect Me At Work Or School?

    The short answer: not a chance. When you open a private browsing mode window, you may notice a little block of text, warning you that incognito mode doesn't make you invisible to your ISP or employer. They have to put that warning there, because your employers, teachers, or school can definitely track what you're up to, even if you're incognito.

    Your browser mode is telling your computer not to record or store your history or activity, but that doesn't mean it has any control over other connected computers, servers, or routers. When you go to a website, your activity leaves your computer and goes through several additional systems to get to the website's server itself.

    If you're at work or at school, it goes through their network, and goes through their router, where your employer or school can store your traffic. If they want to, they can check the log and see what you've been up to - sometimes even while you're in the middle of doing it.