Most people get it completely wrong when it comes to ‘Private Browsing’ – aka ‘Incognito’ mode – a new study has shown.
Private browsing is actually far less ‘private’ than most people imagine, with your details (including IP address and even sites you’ve visited) still potentially visible.
A University of Chicago study asked 460 volunteers what they thought private browsing mode did in various scenarios – and most of those had no idea how public their information remains.
For instance, the study found that 56.3% believed that logging into a Google account in incognito mode would mean searches weren’t saved.
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Another 46.5% thought bookmarks saved in private mode wouldn’t show up, and 40.2% thought it would stop websites tracking their location.
An alarming 25.2% said they believed that setting the browser to private would hide their public IP address.
‘We found that browsers’ disclosures fail to correct the majority of the misconceptions we tested,’ the researchers write.
Who can see what you do in Incognito mode?
Setting your browser to incognito won’t hide what you’re doing from your boss – the sites you visit are still visible on your work network, so your employer will know (and have a record of) what sites you visit.
If you’re on an internet connection at school or university, they’ll also be able to see what you’re doing (basically, this applies unless you’re paying for the connection yourself).
It also won’t hide what you’re doing from your ISP, which will still see a record of every site you visit.
Websites you visit will still ‘see’ your IP address, so they’ll have a record of your visit, even if your PC doesn’t store it.
The cookies used to identify you will have gone, and your browsing history will have vanished, but your IP address can still be traced as having visited a particular website.
What data is stored – and where?
Google says, ‘Your activity isn’t hidden from websites you visit, your employer or school, or your internet service provider.’
If you log into a Google account while you’re in Incognito mode, you’ll also save the searches and sites you visit in your Google history (separate from your PC one).
This can be accessed by anyone on a computer logged into your email.
Any files you download won’t be remembered by Chrome – but will still be in your device’s downloads folder, and will be visible to anyone who uses your device, Google warns.
So what is it good for?
Private browsing is great for ensuring you don’t accidentally leave data on a shared computer – for instance if you’re using a computer in a library.
If you’re logging in to check email, for instance, Incognito mode is a useful safeguard (of course, you’ll need to remember to close the window).
It erases tracking cookies, searches, and sites visited, so it can also be a sneaky way to bypass paywalls on some news sites.