Over the last few years, the issue around online privacy has become a common focus for both tech companies, governments and users.
From new laws regulating how personal data can be collected and used, to security software like the best antivirus and VPN services preventing people's most sensitive information from going into the wrong hands: everyone is seemingly more aware about the risks of surfing the web.
Even web browsers are doing their part. Regardless if you are using Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari, Opera, or others – they all give you the possibility to keep your browsing activities more secret.
Most known as Incognito mode or Private browsing, it's a handy feature to easily limit the data your browser collects about you. Each session is like a new, clean slate that gets wiped out as soon as you close it.
However, going Incognito is not as private and anonymous as most users may think. As a 2018 research found out, there are plenty of misconceptions about the degree of protection gained from Private browsing.
Let's then debunk some myths and understand the real advantages you can enjoy when switching to Incognito mode on your favorite browser.
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What is Incognito mode?
Depending on your browser, the feature will have a different name. Google Chrome calls it Incognito mode; Private browsing is how Mozilla Firefox, Opera and Apple Safari refer to it; InPrivate mode is the chosen term for Microsoft Edge.
Different denominations, but the same result. Turn on the option to get a blank slate that keeps your browsing history more private.
That's because an Incognito window doesn't record the web pages you visit. Likewise, cookies - text files stored on a device to collect personal data - will be deleted once the session is terminated. It will also automatically log you out from your accounts while halting browser extensions in use.
Besides web browsers, there are a few other services offering an Incognito mode. These include Reddit, YouTube, Google Maps, and Google Play Store.
Why use Incognito mode?
The biggest difference between Private browsing and a normal session is that both your browser and the sites you visit won't remember you once the Incognito window gets closed.
This degree of secrecy can be really useful in some circumstances.
For instance, it gives you the possibility to sign in to multiple accounts simultaneously. That's quite handy for those users wishing to keep their work and personal activities separate.
You may want to open an Incognito window every time you access the internet from a device that doesn't belong to you. As your browsing history will be deleted, no one would be able to go back to your searches.
Similarly, Private browsing is perfect if you want to keep secret some sensitive queries. This can be as you're looking for the best gift for your partner, or some health issues related searches you don't wish to have a record of.
Many users also go in Incognito to get the best deals on flights and hotel rooms. As the site cannot remember you, it won't be able to apply price hikes to returning customers.
What Incognito does not protect
Despite being useful for some use cases, the protection gained from Private browsing is quite limited.
Firstly, an Incognito window cannot grant you anonymity online. That's mainly because it doesn't hide your IP address nor encrypt your internet traffic. This means that your ISP, school or work place can still snoop on your browsing activities.
Incognito mode offers very narrow security protections, too. It doesn't prevent you from infecting your device with a malware. What's more, cookies and other web trackers can still collect your data while the session is open.
In 2020, Google was actually being sued for tracking users surfing in Incognito mode. While a 2019 research revealed that more than 90% of pages visited in Private mode leaked people's data to third parties.
Closing a private session won't erase all traces of your browsing activities from your device, either. The file you download or pages you bookmark will remain on your device even after you close an Incognito window.
Likewise, your online activities will be recorded every time you log into your accounts - whether this is your social media page, Amazon or Google profile.
How to really browse safely
As we have seen, Incognito mode or Private browsing can protect your data just until a certain extent. To really secure your identity and device when surfing the web, you need to equip yourself with some additional tools.
1. Protect your device with an antivirus software
A reliable antivirus software should be the first step of your defense plan against malware. That's because it can create a layer of protection between your device and the files you download or the pages you visit. It generally works by regularly scanning your smartphone or computer looking out for viruses, rootkit, spyware and other types of malware.
If you're new to the world of antivirus, Malwarebytes might be just the right service for you. As our cybersecurity expert Mike Williams pointed out in his review, Malwarebytes is perfect for newbies as "it's all very straightforward." Its focus on fundamentals and usability is indeed the area where the software shines the most. You can either opt for its free version, paid Premium plan or Privacy bundle for a multifaceted defense strategy.
2. Secure your anonymity with a VPN
Short for virtual private network, a VPN is your best bet to boost your anonymity online. That's because it masks your identity and real location, while encrypting all the data in transit inside its VPN tunnel. As for how the software works, there is a wide array of additional benefits of using a VPN too. It is worth noting, though, that some web trackers will still be able to track down some of your activities.
There are tons of VPN services out there, but not all of them have the same privacy and security features in place. Our number one recommendation in terms of security and performance is ExpressVPN. If you're not ready to invest money on it, make sure to check our guide to the best free VPN around right now. Many of these apps can bring more harm than good unless carefully chosen.
3. Add an extra layer of security using Tor browser
Even though full anonymity and bulletproof security is something impossible to achieve, Tor browser can get you very close to it. Even better as it's 100% free to use. Built on the so-called onion routing, it routes the traffic through at least three servers and encrypts the data each step of the way. You can even combine the use of Tor with your usual VPN software, too. Proton VPN, for example, has done an impressive job to facilitate the integration between the two softwares.
Beware that these additional encryption layers might slow down your connection speeds. So, we recommend using Tor only when your privacy is paramount. For your everyday activities, you might want to consider one of the best anonymous browsers instead. Above all, Mozilla Firefox is a reliable choice thanks to its enhanced security features.
4. Choose your privacy, switching to a private search engine
If securing your browser is an important step, so is opting for a privacy-focused search engine. Our favorite right now is probably DuckDuckGo. Despite being minimalistic compared to its more popular counterparts, it promises not to store any of your personal information ever. Plus, it doesn't allow ads to follow your activities from site to site.
There are also alternatives. For example, one of the best cheap VPN providers, Surfshark, is offering its own Search software with its Surfshark One security bundle. Neeva is then another private and ad-free search engine, developed by an ex-Google Head of Ads to bring back user-first search.
5. Stay on top of your digital hygiene
Employing a diverse range of security software is just the starting point for being more private online. Being aware of how different websites track you down and how to minimize that is another important step to stay on top of your digital hygiene.
Things like regularly erasing your cookies history, using privacy-friendly browser extensions and customizing the data you share with your apps are all tactics to boost your privacy. We wrote more in depth about the ways to browse the web anonymously here.
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Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to email@example.com