Browser incognito modes, or “privacy modes” as they are more colloquially known, were first introduced by Apple. In 2005, the company launched the first “Private Browsing” mode in Safari 2.0.
Since then, privacy modes have been added to Google Chrome (known as “Incognito”), Internet Explorer (“InPrivate Browsing”), Firefox (“Private Browsing”), and Microsoft Edge (“InPrivate Browsing”).
Privacy modes have become hugely popular with users–but there are many misunderstandings about how privacy mode actually work and what they actually protect you from.
Activate Privacy Mode In Safari
Choose File > New Private Window from Safari’s menu bar. A new window will appear with a dark theme. That window is the private browsing window. It has a dark Smart Search field with white text.
Activate Privacy Mode In Mozilla Firefox
In an open Firefox window at the top right corner click the Menu (three horizontal bars) button. Now click New Private Window (it’s got a little eye-mask icon by it). A new Incognito window will appear. In the top corner, you’ll see the Private icon confirming you’re in Private mode.
Activate Privacy Mode In Microsoft Edge
In an open edge window at the top right corner click the More (three vertical dots) button. Now click New InPrivate Window. A new InPrivate window will appear. In the top corner, you’ll see the Private icon confirming you’re in Private mode.
Activate Privacy Mode In Google Chrome
In an open Chrome window at the top right corner click the More (three vertical dots) button. Now click New Incognito Window. A new Incognito window will appear. In the top corner, you’ll see the Incognito icon confirming you’re in Incognito mode.
Or… if you want to go completely private, simply use DuckDuckGo!
What Privacy Modes Do NOT Do
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but if you think privacy or incognito modes protect you from your ISP knowing what sites you go to, or government agencies, then you are wrong. If you go to amazon.com in privacy mode, your ISP will still have a record that you went to Amazon’s website–and anyone who can access your ISP’s records will know too.
Privacy modes also do not stop Google and other search engines from saving your search queries if you are logged into your Google account (or other search engine accounts).
Privacy modes also do not stop websites and ISPs from knowing the true location of your computer you are browsing the web from. If you want to do that, you’ll need to use a VPN.
Finally, privacy modes do not protect you from getting malware or viruses.
What Privacy Modes Do ACTUALLY Do
So what do private modes actually do? Privacy modes allow you to browse the web on your computer without traces of your web activity being saved to your computer locally. These traces include browsing history records, web caches, and other bits of data, such as a record of your usernames or passwords.
In other words, surfing the web in privacy mode on your home laptop would help hide your web activity on your local machine from other users who might have access to it. To put it more bluntly, if you are using privacy mode to surf porn on your home iMac so your wife doesn’t find out–you’re pretty safe.
Unless your wife is a digital forensics expert, your porn browsing in privacy mode will hide your activity from anyone else who might be using your computer (provided you quit the browser when you are done).
But again, your ISP will still know which porn sites you visited in privacy mode because privacy mode only protects your Internet history locally.
Apple expert and novelist, Michael Grothaus has been covering tech on KnowYourMobile for the best part of 10 years. Prior to this, he worked at Apple. And before that, he was a film journalist. Michael is a published author; his book Epiphany Jones was voted as one of the best novels about Hollywood by Entertainment Weekly. Michael is also a writer at other publications including VICE and Fast Company.