Internet Security

6 Ways You Can Be Tracked in Incognito or Private Browsing Mode

Simon Batt Updated 11-02-2020

Most modern browsers come with a “private browsing” feature that lets you hide what websites you visit, but it’s not a good substitute for “proper” tools. Can incognito browsing be tracked, and what alternatives are available if it doesn’t?

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Let’s explore what private browsing does hide and what it doesn’t.

What Does Private Browsing Hide?

When you activate private browsing, your browser stops logging the websites you visit. It also prevents the creation or modification of cookies, as they can tie the activity to a specific user. Some private browsing features also disable extensions, but this can be toggled on or off.

As far as privacy goes, that’s all that it covers. It’s similar to if you used your browser as usual then erased your history and cookies once you finished. This is great for hiding browser activity from other users of the same computer, but it doesn’t stop other agents from watching you browse.

Can Private Browsing Be Tracked?

While private browsing is perfect from hiding that surprise present for a loved one, can your private browsing be traced? Unfortunately, it’s not effective at stopping people from locating you as other tools available to you.

1. Over-the-Shoulder Tracking Still Works

The most obvious form of tracking is someone watching your screen. Private browsing doesn’t create a special forcefield that blocks everyone but you from seeing your monitor, after all! If you can see it, so can anybody else behind you, no matter how secure your browser is.

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If you’re using private browsing to hide what websites you visit, try not to get too comfy. Be sure people don’t peek over your shoulder and see what you’re doing. This ranges from buying that perfect birthday gift to keeping yourself safe from other patrons at a coffee shop.

2. Network Logging Can Still Track You

Private browsing stops your computer from keeping logs about your visits; however, the traffic leaving your PC doesn’t change. If you’re using a computer that’s on a logged school or work network, you’ll still leave tracks.

As such, if you use private browsing to sneak in some online game time, the logs will catch you and get you into trouble. You’ll need a way to encrypt or redirect your outgoing traffic to fool the logs.

3. Websites Still Know Who You Are

If you’re using private browsing to stop a website from knowing who you are or where you’re logging in from, you may want to reconsider! As is the case above, your traffic doesn’t have any additional encryption when you use private browsing. This means that the websites you visit can log where you’re connecting from.

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Some websites will deny you access if you’re from a blacklisted country. You’ll see these blocks on websites such a region-sensitive TV program sites, where only residents of that country can watch videos. Using private browsing will still reveal your geographical location and won’t skirt past the block.

4. The Man in the Middle Sees Everything

So far, private browsing doesn’t seem all that secret. Unfortunately, we’ve only covered your traffic as it leaves the building you’re in, and when it arrives at the destination. We’ve yet to dig into the hidden half of the iceberg, which is everything between these two points.

Some of these prying eyes aren’t malicious. Your ISP, for example, will log your activity to ensure you’re not doing anything illegal. Private browsing doesn’t mask your browsing habits from them, so blockades will still catch you.

More sinister agents include users initiating a Man in the Middle attack What Is a Man-in-the-Middle Attack? Security Jargon Explained If you've heard of "man-in-the-middle" attacks but aren't quite sure what that means, this is the article for you. Read More . This is when someone peeks into your traffic in the hopes of stealing data. Private browsing won’t protect you from them, either; they’ll still see everything you do.

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5. Malware and Browser Extensions Can Monitor You

Private browsing doesn’t block anything that actively tracks you on your computer, whether you know it’s following you or not. Malware and browser extensions can both see what you’re doing, regardless of if you’re using private browsing or not.

Any extension that harvests information about your browsing will still do so in incognito mode. This is why, when you activate the incognito mode, some browsers will disable all extensions by default. However, you can tell an extension to load while in incognito mode, where it can then monitor you.

Malicious programs don’t ask for permission to track you during private browsing, however. Keyloggers, for example, will record your typing, regardless of if you use incognito mode or not.

6. Browser Fingerprinting Still Works

If you think about it, your browsing experience is unique. From your operating system to the hardware on your computer, someone can use these details to build a profile about you. Even if you have a prebuilt PC, you’re still identifiable through your browser choice, your plugins, the timezone you’re in, and the OS’s active language.

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This process has a name: browser fingerprinting Your Browser Has a Fingerprint and It Can Be Tracked Online You may think you're anonymous on the web, but here's the truth: your computer and browsers can be used to create a unique fingerprint that points to you. Read More . This is when a website gathers data about who you are and how you browse without the need to set any cookies. Private browsing still hands over this data, making it a poor choice for protecting your online privacy.

How to Truly Browse Privately

So, private browsing isn’t great for protecting your online profile. If that doesn’t work, however, what does?

Firstly, consider installing the HTTPS Everywhere plugin, available for Chrome and Firefox. As the name suggests, this forces SSL connections where possible. While it’s not a reliable solution, it helps. It’s worth noting that HTTPS Everywhere can have some adverse effects on some websites. You can read more about HTTPS Everywhere in our guide to the best security Google Chrome extensions 13 Best Security Google Chrome Extensions You Need to Install Now Staying secure online can be tough. Here are several Chrome security extensions that you should consider adding. Read More .

Secondly, you can use a VPN. This encrypts your data before it leaves your computer and sends the packet to the VPN server before it reaches the destination. Anyone trying to log your connection won’t see what you’re sending or its final destination.

You can also use a proxy server to mask your exact destination. These don’t encrypt your data, so your traffic can still be monitored; however, proxies can be a useful way to avoid website blocks.

If you want to go deep undercover, you can always download the Tor browser. Not only does this browser encrypt your traffic as you search, but it also passes it through several nodes to obfuscate your real location. You can’t choose the nodes used, which makes it a poor choice for getting around geo-blocks; however, it does provide fantastic privacy for no additional cost.

Finally, be sure to download a robust antivirus and keep it up to date. This stops any keyloggers or tracking software from watching your browsing habits.

Keeping Yourself Private Online

So, can incognito mode be tracked? Unfortunately, yes—while it’s an excellent tool for hiding that surprise trip you’re planning, it’s not useful for keeping yourself private on the internet. There are tools far better suited for that, and some of them are free!

If you prefer to browse in privacy, why not try one of these free anonymous web browsers 4 Free Anonymous Web Browsers That Are Completely Private Anonymous browsing of the web is one way to protect your online privacy. Here are the best anonymous web browsers to use. Read More ?

Related topics: Browser Extensions, Online Privacy, Private Browsing.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Prithvi
    May 31, 2017 at 8:18 am

    I tried to open theaPizzarIHutIndia website through Google and clicked an ad. The website asked me to visit in normal mode and said you maybe visiting in private mode.

    I don't understand why Pizza Hut would care. But maybe they their offers only for newer customers.

    I was using Chrome on my iPhone 7 Plus.

  2. bee mayer
    April 24, 2017 at 1:38 am

    I used to think I was doing at least an above-average job controlling when the sites I visited saw my location. That it until 4 minutes ago while using my Galaxy S5, using Google Chrome version 57.0.2987132, within an incognito window, WITH LOCATION SERVICES OFF, when Leafly.com informed me there was no Durban Poison to be found in my city. Of course not...I was merely researching for a friend whose girlfriend wanted to know about what her cousin was talking about, duh. My next search was to hopefully find a discussion kind of like this one. But seriously, WTF!? Maybe I'm a "conspiracy theorist," but I have this "idea" my government has a direct-fiber optic tap into our entire communications infrastructure, and it is an impossibillity to be "incongnito, but come on Google! You could at least do a better job of helping think that someone is looking out for the sheep and not strengthening the chains of control we already have to endure. Alright, back to my research....

  3. MD
    July 31, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    is it possible to download VPN without admin password ?

    • FlamingEssence
      July 25, 2017 at 1:09 am

      Windows 10 comes with a VPN

  4. JamesPotter
    May 24, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    It is right, just using private browsing is not enough. Even if your browsing history is not available you are still giving much data to advertisers. It's better to make a combo with tools like Ivacy VPN to be completely anonymous on the internet while browsing.

  5. Aibek Esengulov
    February 10, 2016 at 10:50 am

    You forgot to mention the ISP. These guys can see everything regardless of the incognito mode unless you're using using a VPN

  6. Anonymous
    January 19, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    How can you block cookies effectivly from all web sites if you are using Safari of FairFox?

    Thanks!

    • Matthew Hughes
      January 21, 2016 at 10:38 pm
    • Sally G
      November 23, 2016 at 3:34 pm

      I use an add-on that “self-destructs” cookies when I leave a page; it enables an easier experience while I am on the page, but without traces remaining for later data-mining. It also clears out LSOs when I end the browser session. Because I am a bit obsessive*, I also have NoJava enabled, so I approve each piece of JavaScript on each site I go to (one can also set it up to allow JS from bookmarked pages, or white list frequently used sites).
      *I joke about having CDO—Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, properly alphabetized! (I know, politically incorrect, but I am more obsessive than average!)