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Is Incognito Really Safe? How It Does (and Does Not) Protect You Online

Fergus O'Sullivan
By Fergus O'Sullivan (Writer, Former Chief Editor)
— Last Updated: 2021-10-24T20:37:43+00:00

We all have times when we would prefer that people not know what we’ve been up to on the internet. Doesn’t matter if you were hitting up a few porn sites, booking a surprise dinner for the person you share the computer with or doing something not quite legal, like torrenting. Many people will switch on private mode in these cases, without wondering whether going incognito is really safe.

It’s a good question, too, because it isn’t. While incognito is a great way to make sure that your browsing history remains hidden on your end of the internet, it doesn’t do a thing where your connection hits the web. Your internet service provider, as well as the sites you’re connecting to, know exactly who you are, where you are and what you’re doing.

We’ll go into detail about all this in the rest of this piece, but if you just want the thrust of it, a virtual private network will fulfill your anonymity needs. At Cloudwards, we’ve tested over 50 of VPNs and have come up with this overview of the best VPNs that we recommend you check out. With the quick answer out of the way, let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

How Does Incognito Mode Work?

Incognito mode, also called private browsing, is when your browser opens a session and doesn’t record what it’s doing while that session is active. It’s handy for a number of reasons, but it’s really no more than short-term, selective amnesia on the part of your browser; there’s no protection whatsoever involved. All it does is forget whichever websites you visit.

Generally speaking, all of the best browsers will make this abundantly clear from the outset, like Google Chrome does when opening an incognito tab.


Vivaldi is even more outspoken in pointing this out when you open a so-called private window.


So, with your browsing and search history, as well as cookies, out of the picture, nobody who uses the computer after you will know what you’ve been up to. This is great if you’re buying gifts for your wife (the actual reason Google gave when it launched this function) or doing something else you don’t want people finding out — insert self-abuse joke here.

Really Protecting Yourself Online

As you can see, incognito mode is pretty cool and can be used for a number of reasons. However, if you’re using it because you need actual protection while online — for whatever reason — it’s not going to help you at all. For that, you’ll need a VPN, which is a handy little type of app that will encrypt your connection while you’re online.

How that encryption — called a “VPN tunnel” — works, we’ll leave you to find out in our articles on VPN security and VPN protocols, but it’s a great way to go unnoticed while browsing, and it pretty much ensures your privacy. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s no place for that old incognito window.

In fact, VPNs and incognito mode play together exceptionally well. While VPNs will protect you where your connection hits the internet at large, so to speak, incognito mode will make sure no data is saved on your computer’s end. Using both together means no trace of your session will exist on either end after you’re done with whatever you’re doing. 

On top of that, VPNs also have the handy ability to change your IP address, meaning it’s a great way to hide your browsing and location, further throwing any digital bloodhounds off your track. In fact, VPNs are our number one recommendation in our online privacy guide, and we think everybody should use one.

Final Thoughts 

So that’s our explanation of what incognito mode is, what it’s good for and why you shouldn’t trust it implicitly when it comes to protecting your privacy. In short, it’s good for keeping some dodgy sites from popping up in the address bar, but not much else. For real protection and anonymous browsing, you should use a VPN.

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What are your experiences using incognito mode? Any anecdotes or even VPN recommendations you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below. As always, thank you for reading.


  • In almost all browsers, going incognito is as simple as clicking the menu and then selecting incognito mode or private browsing or some other combination of these words. The menu item you need is most likely called “file.”
  • Most certainly. Incognito mode doesn’t hide the websites you visit from your internet service provider, marketeers or government agents doing their daily snooping.
  • Because it doesn’t protect your actual surfing, it just wipes your browsing history after you close the session. You can still be tracked, private browser or no.
  • Nobody. Your browser will wipe all data of your session once you end it. So as long as you do exactly that, you’re good.
  • Not at all. Incognito just wipes your web history for a specific session; it doesn’t make you anonymous while browsing. For that, you need a VPN.
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