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Google has made a big deal out of its Google Chrome browser incognito browsing mode. They claim that incognito anonymizes your browsing session. It is very easy to open an incognito window, and the session does not affect browsing in other windows. But how secret is Google’s incognito mode, really? Is it as safe as using a VPN to anonymize your web traffic?
How to use Incognito Mode
This is how Google says their incognito browsing mode works. They say that any websites you open and files you download aren’t going to be logged in your browsing and download history. All the cookies for that session are also deleted after you close the incognito window. But any changes that are made to your bookmarks and general settings are saved. On the Google Chrome menu, users can select to open an incognito window. The incognito icon appears to indicate that the window is set to disable history tracking and to delete cookies. The keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Shift+N is available to users of Windows, Linux and Chrome OS, and ⌘-Shift-N for Mac. Windows 8 has the easy window switcher.
How Safe Is Incognito Mode?
From Google’s mouth, the incognito window can stop tracking on your browser, but the websites you visit can still track and store your information. Any cookies sent from those websites and files that are stored on your computer from those visits will not be removed. Any searches you perform while signed into your Google account will be saved in your web history.
Pausing Google Web History tracking is under a different setting, and can be adjusted to prevent your web history from being saved. Furthermore, incognito functionality is limited in Chrome OS. Both regular tabs and incognito tabs use the same HTML5 local storage that websites use to store files on your computer. These sites will be able to access the data stored there regardless of the incognito setting.
The level of privacy you get with incognito mode really depends on Google’s desire to track and profile users. Google depends on saved data from user browsing habits to improve its search algorithm and for targeted advertising – both for its own ads and to be sold to other advertisers. It seems that pausing web history tracking can solve the problem of Google storing your browsing data. Even if this works, however, it is a setting that most people will forget to check.
Browser settings are far from a guarantee of anonymity. Do not track features are no more than suggestions that can be ignored. Admittedly, Google cannot stop other websites from taking your data and storing it. They have also not provided any guarantees that they are not able to do the same if they so choose. ISPs can also store any of your Internet data that they want to, and they often do. Even in incognito mode, they have ways of tracking your surfing habits.
There are other holes as well. Particularly when streaming media online, users are vulnerable to data storing. For instance, when Internet Explorer’s Windows Media capabilities are used for streaming, a copy of the files is saved in IE’s history. This is true even if IE in not the browser used for streaming. Another irritating step of clearing IE’s history is required for the evidence to be removed.
Incognito Mode Not So Undercover
The privacy issues of the practices mentioned above are enough to conclude that Google’s incognito mode does not really provide users with undercover website access. Whether or not Google Chrome remembers your browsing history, other people can access and save your data. Moreover, following the many steps to cover your tracks on your computer alone is hardly worth the effort. Unless, of course, you are only worried about someone on your computer seeing where you’ve been.
For truly private browsing, users need a VPN. Whether or not users adjust the web history settings and use incognito mode, their IP addresses are still exposed. A VPN will hide user IP addresses from websites and ISPs. A VPN will encrypt data and traffic so it can’t be decoded for profiling. Your browser cannot protect you from people who are determined to monitor your online behavior and save it for later use. This is especially true for valuable data that can be sold to advertisers or shared with government agencies to stay out of trouble.