Google Chrome is one of the most popular web browsers available, due both to its functionality across multiple operating systems and its abundance of additional features. One feature that is particularly popular is what is called Incognito mode. Going Incognito will open a new window and will allow you to browse the web privately, disabling Chrome’s options for saving browsing or search engine history, passwords, and cookies. The option is easily accessed via the menu found by clicking the three-dotted icon in the top right corner of the screen and can also be activated by pressing Ctrl+ Shift + N (or ⌘ + Shift + N for Apple computers). Additionally, many other web browsers offer similar private browsing features, making available across a wide range of devices.

Yet while the Incognito function can be quite useful, its effectiveness is often overstated and while it is often referred to as “private” web browsing, its privacy options are actually fairly limited. Many incorrectly believe that by using Incognito mode, they can hide their browsing activity from anyone. In practice, this is simply not what it is used for, and over-reliance on the option can potentially put you at even greater risk. It is important to fully understand how this much-used “privacy” mode works if you want to safely browse the web, so consider this a breakdown of the benefits and limitations of going Incognito.

The Pros of Going Incognito

The main benefit of using Incognito mode is the sense of privacy that it provides by limiting the information recorded to your browser’s history. While in Incognito mode, your browser will not keep track of which websites you visit or files you downloaded, nor will it save any passwords for your various online accounts. This can be very helpful if you are using a public computer, as it ensures that vital information like your social media or banking passwords is not recorded. Identity theft is a near-constant concern in this day and age, so taking an extra precaution to keep important information away from prying eyes is always a good idea.

On top of this, Incognito mode has several benefits that are not directly related to privacy and data security. For instance, if a friend needs to check their email or Facebook account on your computer, opening an Incognito window means they can log-in without having to log-out of your own account. Also, since many online advertisements start to tailor themselves based on your search history and which websites you have visited, going Incognito can be a way to avoid being bombarded by annoying advertisements. It is also a helpful tool if you are experiencing problems with Chrome or a specific website, as Incognito mode disables most extensions or add-ons, allowing you determine if one is interfering with the browser’s normal functions.

Where Incognito Mode Falls Short

Those with less experience in online privacy options might think that Incognito mode is enough to fully protect their personal information and browsing history. Despite its name though, Incognito mode is not fully “private,” only limiting certain information from being recorded. However, it is largely ineffective at blocking third-party monitoring, meaning that your internet service provider can still track your online activities, as can most universities or places of work. Also, while staying Incognito can prevent other people who use your computer from accessing your personal information, it does not provide much protection from hackers, malicious programs, and other outside sources looking to inflict harm.

Even if your intentions are just to not leave behind a record of your browsing and search history, Incognito doesn’t completely cover your tracks. Though your activity will be deleted from your browser,it does not prevent other platforms from saving your search results. For example, if you are logged into your Google account and make any searches via Google, it will keep track of this information regardless if you are in Incognito mode. Also, other browsers with similar Incognito modes are often even less secure than Chrome: Microsoft Edge still stores cookies even if you are browsing privately, so its protection options are even more limited.

Keeping Your Web History Secure

Ultimately, while using Incognito mode can be helpful for protecting your personal information while using a public computer and has several other aspects that make it useful under certain circumstances, it is far from a flawless solution for protecting your personal information online. Some circumstances are beyond what your browser is capable of protecting you from, and these are usually the problems that are most concerning for someone looking to protect their browser history. In the end, 100% anonymity is just not possible using a private window, and the best ways to fully secure your online activity and IP address are to invest in a virtual private network, or VPN, and to install a quality filter program. It might be more complicated than just going Incognito, but for those in need of more robust online security options, the level of protection provided more than makes up for the complexity or cost.