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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky

Volume 18 Issue 6

June 2024

"Private" or "Incognito" Web Browser Windows Are Not What You Think

The appearance of privacy and security


Using the internet can expose you to many security and privacy risks. Your web browser’s ability to open a “private” or “incognito” window sounds like it’s secure, presumably keeping you, your personal information, and your computer completely protected while you’re online.


Unfortunately, that’s not at all what “private” means in this context.


The reality


Using a private browser window (instead of a regular one) prevents a record of the sites you’ve visited from being saved in that particular web browser on your computer after you’ve closed that window, including:


  • No entries in your browser history
  • No stored cookies; for example, if you sign in to a website and check the box to “remember” your username, or if you sign in with two-factor authentication and choose the option to “trust this computer” next time, after you close the private window those choices will not be remembered
  • No stored passwords


On the other hand, if you download files or create any bookmarks during a private browsing session, after you close that window those downloads and bookmarks will remain on your computer.


However, using a private window has no effect on the information that the websites you visit online can see. Just like using a regular browsing window, those websites will still have a record of your visit, along with whatever information you (and your browser) have revealed, as well as whatever you’ve done while online.


A private window also cannot prevent data from being collected by a website’s server, nor from any intermediate networks your connection to that website traveled through to get to that site, like your ISP (your Internet Service Provider), your employer (if you’re using the company’s network), online advertisers, etc.


It also does nothing to protect you from viruses and other malicious software or email, nor does it hide your IP address


In other words, despite the name (which is very misleading), private browsing does not enhance your privacy or security or anonymity online at all, nor does it “protect” or “hide” you in any way. It only avoids saving a local record of your browsing on your computer, so anyone else who might also use your computer can’t see a record of what you’ve done online.


Instead of “private browsing,” here are my ideas for more accurate names for this mechanism:


  • No local record browsing
  • Disposable browsing
  • Evaporated browsing
  • Forgetful browsing
  • Transient browsing


Why would you use a private window?


Private browsing windows can be useful in some situations, including:


  • Signing into more than one account on the same website in the same browser. For example, a friend using your computer could sign into their amazon.com account without affecting your current amazon session, or you could sign in to multiple email accounts at the same time, e.g., bob@company.com and mary@company.com, which are both in the same domain.
  • Shopping for a gift or vacation plans while also trying to keep it a surprise.
  • Signing into an account (like your email or bank account) using a computer that belongs to someone else, especially in a public library or hotel lobby.
  • Researching sensitive topics, to avoid associating that effort with your regular browsing history.
  • Online shopping, to reduce online tracking of your interests and related advertising.




On a Windows or Macintosh computer, these web browsers use these terms:


  • Google Chrome: Incognito Window
  • Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari: Private Window
  • Microsoft Edge: InPrivate Window


On a smartphone or tablet:


  • Apple Safari on iPhone or iPad, iOS 12 or later: Private Browsing Mode
  • Google Chrome on Android: Incognito mode


Additional notes


Private windows typically have a dark background or “theme” so you can easily distinguish them from regular web browser windows.


To start private browsing, you would either open a new private window, or in an existing window you can choose to open a link in a new private window.


Most web browsers also have “tracking protection” (or “anti-tracking”) features that you can use in addition to (or separately from) private browsing that try to block websites and their advertisers from following where you go online and building a consumer profile on you, but those features can also prevent some websites from working properly or cause other problems.


Where to go from here


In some of the searches below, replace “X” with the name of your web browser (e.g., Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge, etc.) or mobile device (e.g., iPhone, iPad, Android, etc.)


  • google: private window
  • google: X browse private OR incognito
  • google: why use a private window
  • google: what does my browser reveal

How to contact me:

email: martin@kadansky.com

phone: (617) 484-6657

web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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