Posted on September 21, 2023 in Technology

What Does Incognito Mode Actually Do?

You might have heard it in advice: “You should always look at airline tickets in Private Mode, or the price will go up”, or “I look at eBay in Incognito Mode when I’m on the family computer, so my mom doesn’t know what her Christmas present will be”. Every browser is equipped with it! So what does Incognito Mode actually do?

No History

You probably already know this, but Incognito Mode (or Private Browsing, or Private Mode, or…) doesn’t store history for your browsing session. Great! The downside: If you find something really interesting while Incognito, and don’t bookmark it, it’s not in your history. The upside: if you were shopping on eBay but don’t want the person leaning over your shoulder to know, as long as you only ever visited in Incognito Mode, it won’t auto-fill in the search bar when you type the letter ‘E’.

No Cookies

This is a little bit bigger than it seems.

A cookie is essentially a way for a website to see what you’re interested in (see our article on Cookies for more info). It does other things too, but for most websites, interest is enough. It improves ad revenue, and it does usually make the user’s experience a little better. For example, if I search for dog treats, and I’m not logged into my Amazon account, Amazon may still show me listings for dog treats, even though it shouldn’t technically know it’s me without my login.

This is tracking, even if it’s non-malicious and just to maybe show you something you might buy. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable! Not only that, but if you’re searching for a gift that you yourself would never use – say, Carrot Flavored dog treats – the website has no way to know that the Carol’s Carrot Treats are not for you. So you get recommendations for it. Forever. Unless you’re in Incognito Mode!

Cookies can range from harmless to annoyingly persistent, but they don’t seem to be going anywhere fast. If you’re looking for a gift, and don’t want to be recommended purses for the rest of your life – use Incognito Mode.

Yes, Downloads Are Still There

The browser probably warned you on the default ‘New Tab’ window for Incognito Mode, but anything you download is downloaded to your computer. Downloading things to your browser is actually downloading them to your computer through the browser. If you’re pirating music (don’t do that) and hoping that Incognito Mode will help you avoid malicious downloads, it won’t. Don’t download anything you wouldn’t download in your non-incognito browser.

This applies to bookmarks too: things you bookmark in Incognito Mode are still visible in the regular browser’s bookmark bar.

No Browser-Saved Logins

You know how some websites ask if you’d like them to ‘Remember Me!’ with a little check box the first time you visit a site, and then it autofills the next time you log in, and then it keeps doing that for so long that you forget your password? And then you try to log in so you can get your sister that tchotchke she had her eye on for her birthday? Yep, ‘Forgot Password’ link time. Yaaaay. Passwords saved by your browser might still be there in Incognito Mode, but passwords saved by the website are stored with cookies. As seen above, Incognito Mode does not save cookies.

This will also annoy you next time you log in, because clicking ‘Remember Me!’ for the new password you made just now (in Incognito Mode) won’t actually save it. The website’s cookie only remembers the last password you used in regular browsing mode. The cookie responsible for remembering you is disabled in Incognito Mode.

Yes, Your Internet Provider Can Still See Your History

Don’t do illegal things online. They’re illegal. And also usually visible to the internet provider. Your internet provider can still see the websites you’re visiting in Incognito Mode, because that information passes through them first. However, if you don’t want the ISP to know that you’re ordering oil paintings of dogs through Etsy (LEGALLY!), your best bet is a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN adds a layer of encryption to your data, making it difficult for the Internet Provider to see what sites you’ve visited. This isn’t foolproof, because the VPN is the one seeing your data instead of the ISP – but it is another layer between you and other people discovering you bought that oil painting.