How anonymous window / incognito mode works in web browsers

When we surf the internet, sometimes we may want our location, IP address or anything else to be visible to the sites or services we visit. As a first impulse, we may think to open an Anonymous/Incognito window in our browser. After all, the name may suggest that in the Incognito window we are anonymous on the Internet and our location or anything else cannot be detected. But the truth is a little elsewhere and as we start to trust our browser we should look at what protection the anonymous window brings, but perhaps more importantly, what it doesn’t bring.

What the anonymous window is for

Anonymous/incognito mode helps you browse the web without storing browsing data in that browser. Thus, this data cannot be retrieved later. This means that when you close the incognito window, the search results, pages visited, login data with passwords or cookies are deleted.

Downloaded files and bookmarks that you save will be preserved. This is actually true for all commonly used browsers such as Google Chrome, Opera, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, Microsoft Edge or (now obsolete) Internet Explorer, but also actually any other more exotic browsers.

In a nutshell then, anonymous mode offers

  • Cookies are automatically deleted when the window is closed
  • The history of pages visited is cleared

In practice, then, an anonymous window is good to use when you want to hide information about what you’ve been doing on your computer from those with whom you share your computer. That way, they won’t actually see anything you’ve done on the computer. It’s also an ideal way to use someone else’s computer for a short period of time, or to let someone else use your computer. When you close the anonymous window, all login and other information is automatically deleted, so you or a friend can log in, use a service, and then close the window incognito, with all information erased.

Anonymous windows also come in handy when ordering airline tickets. Thanks to cookies in your browser, these companies know that you’ve ever viewed your destination and departure or arrival date, for example. This way, they can offer you higher prices the next time you visit. When you use the anonymous window, these cookies do not exist, so prices may also be lower.

What the anonymous window doesn’t know and what it’s not for

Google Chrome. Microsoft Edge, Opera or Mozilla Firefox are extremely honest about this and tell you things straight when you open an anonymous window. Other browsers don’t communicate this information as directly, but their anonymous windows actually work in exactly the same way.

The anonymous window does not hide or block the classic data exchange from third parties. This means that your ISP, the government, your employer when used in the office, the network administrator but also the site itself can see what data is going to and from you. In this respect an anonymous window is actually the same as a normal non-anonymous window.

Anonymous windows also brings no added protection against hackers. Also, your IP address is visible in exactly the same way as when using regular windows.

So in short anonymous windows does not offer

  • It does not hide your IP address
  • Does not hide data sent or received from your ISP, government, employer, etc.
  • Doesn’t hide behind incoming and outgoing data – so it’s detectable what files you’ve downloaded or sent
    They do not add additional protection against hackers
  • How to open an incognito window

Anonymous windows can vary in name somewhat from browser to browser. It can be a private window, incognito mode, or InPrivate in the case of Mirosoft Edge, for example. To open an anonymous window, click on the settings (usually located in the top right corner of the browser, in the case of Opera in the top left corner) and click on New Incognito Window (or something along those lines, depending on the browser).

You can also make use of keyboard shortcuts:

  • Google Chrome: Ctrl + Shift + N
  • Opera: Ctrl + Shift + N
  • Mozilla Firefox: Ctrl + Shift + P
  • Microsoft Edge: Ctrl + Shift + N
  • Internet Explorer: Ctrl + Shift + P
  • Safari: ⌘ + Shift + N

To clear all your browsing information, just close the incognito window with all tabs. This will instantly clear your browsing history and everything else. Beware, if you accidentally close the incognito window in this way, open tabs, logged accounts or anything else cannot be recovered and you have to start from the beginning.

If an anonymous window doesn’t help, is it possible to somehow be on the internet anonymously?

An anonymous window doesn’t realistically do anything to help with privacy if we’re talking about data that flows to and from the device. But there are ways and methods to really function anonymously on the internet. The easiest and most reliable method is to use a VPN (short for Virtual Private Network). This works basically by having all data flow through this VPN first, roughly as seen in the diagram:

vpn diagram

A VPN is essentially another computer, called a server, which you connect to and through which encrypted data goes from you but also to you. Quite simply, it is an intermediary through which data flows.

The advantage is that at this point nobody knows where you are or what your IP address or other possible data is. All anyone sees is the information and the IP address of the VPN itself, which manages all the Internet traffic and is the only point on the Internet that, by definition, needs to know which device to send data back to.

The services take extreme care to be completely trustworthy, and it is confirmed that governments or anyone else does not have the authority or any other power to get this data. Trusted VPN services do not back up or store data in any way. So even if someone wanted the data you sent or received, there is no way to get it legally or otherwise over a VPN because those records simply don’t exist.

Moreover, it is very easy to use. You choose a VPN, you choose the server through which the data transfers will take place, and that’s it. It’s very simple to use, straightforward, and if you’re all about security and anonymity, using a VPN is the obvious choice.

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