KEY POINTS

  • Today's browsers offer an "incognito" browsing mode
  • These private browsing modes give users the illusion that they are hidden
  • Reports, however, reveal that they do not keep users safe from malicious websites

Browsers today offer an “incognito” or “private” browsing mode that promises privacy to the average user. Despite their promises, however, surfing the internet using such a mode doesn't completely hide a user's online presence.

The truth is, the incognito mode doesn't really protect a user's identity from those who know how to get it.

Incognito is really good at one thing: deleting cookies and local search and viewing history, Wired explains in a lengthy article. Private browsing modes normally keep no account of the user's internet browsing session. It's as if the user didn't browse the internet at all.

The thing is, that works on the device used for browsing. Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Edge – all of their respective browsing modes will work to prevent cookies from being stored on the device and for browsing and search histories for the private session to be logged on the device.

This gives users the idea that they can freely visit any website on the internet without having to worry about their browsing history coming back to haunt them in the future.

Incognito mode, however, cannot keep a web user's online presence hidden.

Here's what private browsing modes cannot do to protect users:

  • They cannot prevent websites from tracking logged-in users

When a person logs into a social media account using incognito mode, for example, the social media website is able to keep track of the user's activities. This information can then be used to adjust advertisements shown on screen.

  • They cannot prevent companies from fingerprinting users

As per Mozilla, companies can create profiles of internet surfers using certain details such as their device, software, add-ons and preferences. This process, called “fingerprinting,” happens even when users are browsing using incognito mode.

  • They cannot prevent malicious websites from acquiring and selling user data

A joint study conducted by researchers from Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania revealed that a majority of websites that are usually accessed by many using incognito modes, most of them featuring indecent and improper content, actually track and leak user data to third-party organizations.

This should encourage users to be careful with what they are looking up on the internet.

Incognito Mode When you're using incognito or private browsing mode on Safari, Internet Explorer or Chrome, your browsing history might not be as anonymous as you think, according to two researchers. Photo: Ben Fearnow