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?
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.
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.
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 . 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.
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.
This process has a name: browser fingerprinting . 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 .
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 ?