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Private and Incognito browsing: what is private web browsing, and how do you use it?

As experienced web users, we should all be much more conscious of online privacy. The heartening news is that modern web browsers feel our pain. While online services want to track us more and more, browsers are building tighter privacy options.

The first port of call here is the private browser - or incognito - mode. Designed to stop any snooping of internet behaviour by ignoring your history altogether, they’re free and easy to use.

But how do you use them? And what exactly does private browsing do?

In this guide, we'll explain how private browsing works and examine how it can help to protect our personal privacy and security.

What is private web browsing?

Private browsing mode is known by various names: Private mode in Safari, Private Browsing in Firefox, Incognito in Chrome, and InPrivate for Microsoft Edge.

But whatever the name, they all broadly function in a similar fashion.

With private browsing enabled, the browser ceases to store information pertaining to your web browsing session. This means that the things which can reveal your activity to other users on the device - such as page visits, search histories, logins, form fills, and cookies - are temporary, and deleted when the private browsing window is closed.

The idea being, those with access to your device can’t look back retrospectively on what you got up to. It also means that you can safely share that device with other people, without worrying about them gaining access to your online accounts.

Private web browsing on tablets and smartphones

Private web browsing is not restricted to Windows and Apple computers; you’ll find similar options on browsers for Android and Apple iOS smartphones and tablets.

And it’s not just web browsers; mobile apps have taken a leaf here to sport similar privacy modes. YouTube, for example, allows signed-in users to go “Incognito” and browse without a trace. Neither what they search for or watch gets added to their activity and won’t influence similar video suggestions.

Why should I use private browsing?

When it comes down to web habits, the idea of being hidden can be a touchy subject. Should we need to be? And if the answer is yes, the next question is why and what are we trying to hide?

Well, being private about what we do online isn’t the preserve of the nefarious. There can be a multitude of fair, honest reasons to want normal activity kept secret and confidential. For some, the general paranoia of being watched or tracked is enough to want web histories shielded.

Of course, it’s not all about forgetting browsing history. If you share devices with other people, the idea of handing over potentially sensitive data to the next user seems equally frightful. Private modes are just as useful for site logins and cookies aren’t retained either, so the next user on a shared device isn’t automatically logged into your Facebook or email.

Private browsing will also stop cookies from being stored. These tiny files sit on your device and set certain preferences that tailor revisits to each particular URL.

Subject to GDPR and ePrivacy laws, cookies must be accepted by the user, so be mindful you will have to “Allow” the cookie prompt each visit when using private browsing because the site will only retain your preferences for the duration of the session.

So, you should use private browsing if:

  • You want to keep your web browsing activity hidden from other people who may have access to your device.
  • You do not want to stay logged in to online accounts for every web browsing session.
  • You do not want a web site to store your preferences and carry them over to the next session.
  • You want to access a web site as if you were visiting it for the first time.

The drawbacks and limits of private browsing

Private browsing is undoubtedly useful, but there are caveats. Here are a few things to keep in mind when using private mode.

It does not make you anonymous
Private browsing mode does not let you browse the internet anonymously, or do anything to secure your privacy outside of the device on which it’s used. It will not hide activity from your broadband provider, web site operators, network admins, or anyone else. Your IP address will still be visible and it will not prevent browser fingerprinting.

You’ll always have to login and allow cookies
When using private browsing you will have to log back on to online accounts and services every time you start a new session, and any other preferences (such as cookie settings) will not be retained for the next time you visit a site.

It doesn’t stop other software from recording your activity
Private browsing mode only works on the web browser and will not stop any other software on your system from logging activity.

Private mode may not affect bookmarks or file downloads
In most browsers, bookmarks you create while in private browsing mode will usually remain saved in the browser after the private session. Any files you download will also be stored on the hard drive as normal (although the file download history in the browser should be wiped when exiting private mode).

How to use private web browsing

Using private browsing is easy: just select the private browsing option from the browser menu or hit the assigned hotkey (if available) and the web browser will open a new browser window or tab.

On some browsers, the whole client changes colour to show that private mode is on, a handy signifier to recognise and acknowledge that you’re in a private session.

Here’s how to open a private browser window on some of the most popular browsers using either the menu or a hotkey:

  • Apple Safari: File > New Private Window -or- Command+Shift+N
  • Google Chrome: Menu > New Incognito Window -or- Ctrl+Shift+N
  • Microsoft Edge: Menu > New InPrivate Window -or- Ctrl+Shift+N
  • Mozilla Firefox: Menu > New Private Window -or- Ctrl+Shift+P

When you’re done, close the private window and the browsing history will be automatically removed.

If you open another private window from within an existing private session, the current cookies and other data may be carried over to that second session. If you want another fresh private window, open it from your main browser window.

Web browser extensions/add-ons may not be available in private browsing mode unless you specifically allow them. However, be warned that extensions may retain data when you exit a private session.

VPNs and private browsing: should you use a VPN in incognito?

As mentioned above, any in-browser privacy features or modes are client-side, ignoring traces of web activity on the particular device but not protecting you from being tracked or identified online. But you can combine private browsing mode with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to extend your privacy out into the online space.

A VPN facilitates browsing anonymity by hiding your true IP address. So switching to “private” mode stops your browser from recording internet history, and a VPN can - to a degree - mask that activity to your broadband provider and the rest of the internet.

The two are independent but in some circumstances worth using in tandem for maximum privacy. If you use a VPN but don’t switch the browser into a private mode, the usual browsing history and activity will be logged to the device as normal. Employing both methods together ensures maximum confidentiality.

To learn more about VPNs, how to use them, and what they can and cannot do, read our introduction to VPNs to find out everything you need to know.

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