Smartphones are a vital tool for life and also a privacy nightmare. If you don’t take the proper precautions, you can literally expose yourself to friends or family who inadvertently pick up your device and stumble into the wrong app or folder. Fortunately, phone manufacturers offer a host of ways to protect yourself, like the mysterious incognito mode.
But first let’s back up for a second: Using a screen lock. Choose the one that works for you, be it a PIN, a password, a pattern, a fingerprint or a face. A screen lock provides the first layer of defense and should be (almost) all you need to protect yourself. However, there are people with whom we share our screen locks, such as partners or family members or trusted friends. (If you’re a parent, don’t think for a second that your kids haven’t figured out your password. They have.)
Since some people can get past our screen locks, a second line of defense against undue embarrassment is required. One of those strongholds is Google Chrome’s incognito mode, or private browsing. However, incognito mode is not foolproof, and in fact has limitations that you should be aware of.
Next, We explain what Google’s incognito mode does and doesn’t do.
What is incognito mode?
The word “incognito” means to conceal a person’s true identity. The hero of a story can “travel incognito” so as not to be discovered. Incognito mode on Android devices is similar; it is a way to hide while traveling the web. Incognito mode, as done in Google Chrome on Android, basically hides your browsing history so others can’t see the websites you’ve visited. In effect, it masks your tracks on the web.
How to activate incognito mode
Incognito mode is available in the Chrome browser app on Android phones and tablets, as well as the Chrome desktop browser for Mac, Windows machines, and of course ChromeOS.
On your Android device, open Chrome and tap the three-dot menu button in the address bar. A drop-down window appears with a number of available actions, such as starring the page or opening a new window. One of the options is “incognito new tab”. Tap that and Chrome will open a new private tab. You’ll see the little spy icon in a fedora and glasses and a confirmation that “he’s gone undercover.”
Congratulations, you are now browsing privately. You can switch between incognito and normal tabs by tapping the tab tool in the address bar. You’ll only browse privately when you’re in a real incognito tab.
What does it mean to browse privately?
Incognito mode, or private browsing, is device-specific protection. If you use incognito mode on one device but not another, the browsing history on that second device is still vulnerable.
In its simplest form, incognito mode prevents other people who pick up the device from seeing your browser history. In this mode, Chrome itself doesn’t save your browser history or data you type into web forms. Google Chrome won’t sync your account’s private browsing history if you’re signed in to Chrome. Chrome will remember cookies, site data, and permissions granted while browsing, but this information will be deleted when you close the incognito tab. (Of course, you can always delete your browsing history manually at any time.)
If you use private browsing, no one who picks up your device will know that you’ve visited your bank’s website or, for example, PornHub or other embarrassing sites.
Some information is still visible to others
As stated, incognito mode prevents Chrome from recording browsing sessions on your phone. It does not prevent other people from seeing your online activity.
For example, any website you visit will know that you have visited it, as will its advertisers. Any website you access will know that you have navigated to that site, because it has registered the login. If you’re at work or school, whoever runs the network will have access to your browsing history. The same goes for your internet provider at home. That means AT&T or Verizon Wireless if you’re on the go, or Comcast or Verizon FiOS at home. Search engines will also have access to your browsing history and can even display search suggestions based on where you are or what you’re doing.
What can these entities actually see?
Your IP address, which is a way of identifying your basic location. Your actual activity, in real time, while using a website or web service. Also, and this is key, your identity if you connect to any web service. That includes sites owned by Google, like Gmail.
Incognito mode doesn’t hide you from law enforcement, who can task your wired or wireless Internet provider to locate your IP address and reveal your history (provided a warrant is issued).
And there is more.
Chrome doesn’t itself store any files you can download while browsing in incognito mode; however, those files are saved in the main downloads folder. The files are there even after you close your private browsing session. This means that anyone can find and open them.
All the bookmarks you create in private mode are saved in Chrome. This means that if you bookmark an adult website or service, it will appear in your bookmarks folder. Plus, any accessibility preferences, settings, and adjustments you make during private browsing can also be saved to Chrome.
Why should you use incognito mode?
There are specific reasons. You may not be fully protected while browsing privately, but at least you are protected from some embarrassment and potential harm to your close family and friends.
For example, use private browsing if your family shares a tablet or PC, especially if there are children in your home. Kids can get into trouble with devices quite easily, so don’t give them easy access to your favorite adult or financial sites.
Another example, you are using a public computer. Let’s say you have to fill out a form on a machine at the doctor’s office or similar. See if you can turn on private browsing mode so other users on the machine can’t go back to the page and stumble upon your data.
Lastly, if you just don’t want your partner or partner to know what you’ve been doing online, private browsing is the best way to keep that information to yourself (we’ll avoid the notion of relationship health).
How can private browsing be disabled?
Too easy. Since incognito mode works in its own tab, apart from regular Chrome tabs, it’s easy to locate. Tap the tab button in the top right corner of the browser and it should display two series of tabs: regular on the left and private on the right. Private tabs are usually dark in color. Tap the “x” button in the top right corner of each incognito tab to close them.
Alternatively, Android gives you a very powerful way to avoid problems. Let’s say you were enjoying some mature content but you quickly closed the screen and left the tab active in Chrome. Anyone who opens Chrome will land right in the middle of that content. Chrome on Android gives you the option to terminate all incognito tabs from the quick settings menu. It appears as a silent notification. Simply tap on the “close all incognito tabs” notification and it will quietly close everything on the sly. The crisis has been averted in a big way.
Closing incognito mode is the key. Everything stays open until you close the incognito tabs.
Do other apps and browsers have incognito mode?
Of course. The Play Store and Google Maps apps have an incognito mode. The incognito mode of the Play Store is still being tested and has not been fully implemented. The idea is to allow you to search and search between applications without your searches being recorded. Google Maps incognito mode allows you to hide your trips and your searches. Neither of these solutions prevent other apps from seeing what you’re doing.
YouTube also has an incognito mode. Prevent other people from seeing your search and history. The limitations are the same as with Chrome.
Safari for iPhone, iPad, and Mac supports private browsing. Access it by tapping the tabs button in Safari and then selecting “private” to open a new tab. Apple says that Safari won’t remember the pages you’ve visited, your search history, or your AutoFill information after you close a tab in private browsing mode.
Microsoft Edge browser for Windows 10 machines has InPrivate mode, and Firefox supports private browsing for most platforms. Like other applications, these prevent the browser from recording your browsing history when it is in the proper mode. We also like Brave Browser and have a great roundup of the best web browsers for privacy.
Google Chrome’s incognito mode isn’t a perfect solution, but it does have its uses. Please note that it does not affect most applications. If you download an adult content app, it is your responsibility to hide it in a folder or lock it with a password.