Incognito mode: The false security feature of browsers

It goes by many aliases. Safari dubs it Private browsing. Edge calls it InPrivate mode. Firefox refers to it as Private mode. But since Chrome dominates the browser landscape, we'll go by their name—Incognito Mode.

Googling "What is Incognito Mode?" reveals there's no shortage of articles about what this feature technically does.

Most of these articles tell us in dry techy terms about the features of private browsing. Instead of doing that, we'll just decipher how Google describes it using plain everyday English.

What Incognito mode does really


Chrome: "Browsing in Incognito mode means your activity data isn’t saved on your device, or to a Google Account you’re not signed into."
Translation: Incognito mode keeps your browsing information from yourself. That's it!

Chrome: "Each time you close all Incognito windows, Chrome discards any site data and cookies associated with that browsing session."
Translation: Usually, Chrome always allows sites to store info on you. In Incognito mode, it still allows it but gets rid of it when you leave.

Chrome: "Chrome doesn’t tell websites, including Google, when you're browsing privately in Incognito mode."

What Incognito mode doesn't do really


Now that we've covered what Incognito mode does let's hit the longer list of what Incognito mode doesn't do.

Chrome: [It doesn't] Prevent you from telling a website who you are. If you sign in to any website in Incognito mode, that site will know that you’re the one browsing and can keep track of your activities from that moment on.
Translation: The sites you visit still know who you are and can track you.

Chrome: [It doesn't] Prevent your activity or location from being visible to the websites you visit, your school, employer, or your Internet Service provider.
Translation: Everyone can still see you online.

Chrome: [It doesn't] Prevent the websites you visit from serving ads based on your activity during an Incognito session. After you close all Incognito windows, websites won’t be able to serve ads to you based on your signed-out activity during that closed session.
Translation: You're still going to get served a healthy dose of ads.


Why was private browsing created?


Private browsing was initially introduced to the world by Apple in a 2005 version of Safari. Google added it to their browser, as Incognito mode in Chrome, shortly after being released in 2008. According to an article by Norton, "Google Chrome’s “Incognito Mode” was designed to make sharing computers easier in places like the office where one device could have multiple users."

But with around 74% of American's owning their own computer as of 2019, the purpose of Incognito mode being for shared computers seems a bit outdated. Why is Incognito mode still even around? Or perhaps the real question is why hasn't it been replaced by more advanced website privacy securities like Adblockers, Tracking Blockers, or Virtual Private Networks.

When thinking about security in browsers, it's important to remember that all free browsers either are getting their funding from donations or are supported by an ad-based model. This model means that browsers must walk a fine line between satisfying the user with some security features and providing advertisers with the data they need to target specific users.

One way to appease both the user and advertiser at the same time is to provide security features that give the perception of security without really much loss of personal user information to advertising software. After reading the list of what Incognito mode does and doesn't do, it seems private browsing fits this description to a tee.


The perfect illusion of privacy


Tech writers can make claims that are technically true but give a different impression.

Like when Google says, "How Incognito mode protects your privacy.", It gives the impression that it's protecting our privacy from the websites we visit and hackers, but what it really means is "How Incognito mode protects your privacy from snooping family members or other people using the same computer in the public library.

Unfortunately, browsers go to great lengths to make you feel like you're invisible online, but the reality is that everyone can still see you. It's like little kids when they play hide and seek. They close their eyes to hide, but everyone can still see them plain as day. Let's look at a few of the things browsers do to make you feel like Batman in the dark of night.

It's all in the name

First impressions always start with a name. If I create a product called crunchy ice cream, you're most likely to expect a creamy dessert with something in it to make it crunchy, like cookies, granola, or some type of fried bread crumbs. That's the expectation. When browsers use the term Incognito or Private, it gives a particular impression of privacy. Incognito means "having one's true identity concealed," while private is defined as "belonging to or for the use of one particular person." Perhaps a better name for private browsing would be "forgetful browsing" or "get-rid-of-the-evidence browsing."

A separate visual environment

When activating private or incognito mode, several cues make the user feel like they're in a more secure environment. The first is subtle but powerful: a new window opens up. Browser makers could easily create a "private" tab that does the same thing, but the separate window feels more secure. Also, thanks to blocking some cookies, the browser shows that you're not logged in anywhere which gives the impression that no one can detect you.

Dark elements that are stealthy

There's something about dark mode that makes me feel like I'm about to hack into the mainframe of someplace really important. Or like I should turn off the lights and put a hood over my head while I type away. And browsers don't disappoint with the theatrics either. After initiating Incognito or Private mode, I'm presented with a dark-themed window, an icon of a mask (Firefox) or hat and glasses (Google), and the ominous words "You've gone Incognito" or "You're in a Private Window."

Yep, that's my cue to do some serious snooping.

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Private browsing used right


Even though private browsing doesn't live up to its name, there are still some good uses for it. Here are some ways you can take advantage of this unique environment.

Avoid dynamic pricing

Often hotels, airlines, and rental shops will hike the price based on your past viewing habits. Incognito mode by default blocks thirty-party cookies that remember information like your shopping cart contents and past purchases. This enables you to stay away from these dubious practices.

Search without your identity

When you search for anything on the web, the search engine will pull up results based on your location or other things you previously searched. But if you want to search anonymously without clearing out all your cookies, private browsing is the perfect environment for it.

Open multiple accounts

The Sidekick browser allows users to switch between accounts on the same platform by enabling apps to open as a private session. With one click, users can quickly move seamlessly between their email or social media accounts, all from the same window.


Sidekick, as a subscription-based browser (yes, it's real) doesn't need its user's personal information to feed advertising algorithms.

This business model also allows the browser to deliver a robust set of security features that don't have to hide behind the flimsy privacy facade of Incognito mode.
 
Tools like a no-holds-barred tracker and adblocker, a built-in VPN, 2FA, and a secure password manager make it the browser of the future for those who want to take their internet privacy seriously.

As we move into a more secure internet, Sidekick hopes to lead the way with the most advanced non-ad-based browser for knowledge workers everywhere.


NOV 2021