Why Incognito Mode May Not Be Private and What You Can Do About It

Tracking you everywhere

  • Many experts and insiders say that Google Chrome’s Incognito web browsing mode isn’t as private as advertised. 
  • Even using Incognito mode, Google can still track your searches. 
  • For more privacy, you can use a VPN, ad blockers, or an alternative web browser.
Close up of accept cookie settings online

SEAN GLADWELL / Getty Images

Your web browsing sessions on Google Chrome might not be as private as you think.

The Incognito mode, billed as a method of anonymous browsing, leaves a digital trail of users' data, according to a recent report. Google employees themselves are supposedly even complaining about privacy issues with the browser. 

"Chrome's Incognito mode isn't truly private browsing," Mike Parkin, an engineer at cybersecurity firm Vulcan Cyber, told Lifewire in an email interview. "It just places some limits on what's stored and shared, and those limits aren't especially effective at protecting your privacy."

Not So Private?

The privacy claims behind the Google browser are now the subject of a class action lawsuit. Even Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has joined the growing chorus and argues Google's branding and messaging around Incognito are deceptive. 

"Given Google's representations, a reasonable user would expect that turning a setting called "Location History" off means their location history is no longer tracked," Paxton wrote in a petition. "But even with Location History off, Google deceptively continues to track users' location history unless they successfully navigate a counterintuitive labyrinth of seemingly unrelated settings."

Google did not respond to a request by Lifewire for comment. 

There’s no law that says you can’t install multiple extensions to keep your browsing as private as possible.

When you use Incognito mode, Google can still track every search you make in Google search, and it still knows when you click one of those suggestions and navigates to a URL, digital privacy expert Ray Walsh at the website ProPrivacy, told Lifewire in an email interview. Each website you visit in Incognito mode can track you because the mode doesn't conceal your home IP address from the services you visit.

"When you use Incognito mode, your Internet Service Provider still resolves your DNS requests," Walsh added. "This means that your ISP can track every URL you visit and keep a database of your web history—and potentially share that data with third parties, including government snoops."

The main benefit of Incognito mode is that it prevents persistent cookies from accumulating on your device, Walsh pointed out. When you close an Incognito session, any cookies left in your browser during a session are erased. 

"This means that the next time you use your browser and visit a website, that service cannot track you using those cookies," he said. "As a result, using Incognito mode will help to reduce the number of persistent trackers that are left in your browser."

Keeping It Private

If you're uneasy about using Chrome's Incognito mode, there are better ways to keep your browsing private, experts say. For those who prefer to go 'incognito,' it would be best to not sign into any personal accounts, and use a VPN to hide your IP address, tech advisor Vaclav Vincalek told Lifewire via email. You can also install one of many browser extensions that block tracking technology or ad servers.

"There's no law that says you can't install multiple extensions to keep your browsing as private as possible," he added. 

Daniel Markuson, a data privacy expert at cybersecurity company NordVPN, recommends the Firefox browser as an alternative to Chrome. He said it's the only mainstream open-source browser, so users can maintain control over their information and what is done with it. 

"Its private browsing mode includes tracking, malware and phishing protection, pop-up blocking, and anti-fingerprinting protection," he added. "It also offers an array of security-focused add-ons that can underscore the safety of your browsing experience."

Another way to maintain your privacy without much effort is by using ad blocker software to prevent tracking scripts from tracing your web movements, Peter Lowe, a researcher at cybersecurity firm DNSFilter, said in an email to Lifewire. He said that another option is to use a VPN, but make sure to select one with a no-logging policy, like Mullvad or Private VPN

But as with most things online, there's no way to achieve perfect privacy, Lowe pointed out. He recommends a layered approach by using ad blocking, a VPN when appropriate, and a browser like Brave or Firefox. 

"Just like when someone leaves their house, locking the doors on its own isn't the only thing a person can do to prevent a burglary," he said. "Remember that everything a user does could be tracked if someone is trying hard enough."

Was this page helpful?