Do You Know What a Private or Incognito Window Does?April 6, 2022 / My Data Removal Staff
Most browsers have a private or incognito option. Do you ever use it? Do you know how it works? Keep reading to find out why you should add using a private window to your privacy tool kit.
What is a private or incognito window?
A private or incognito window (they are the same thing, it just depends what the browser calls them) is a window you can open in your browser that has no cookies when opened and deletes all cookies when closed. Using a private browser is like you’re getting on the internet for the first time ever, so there will be no targeted ads, search history, or automatic logins. Open a private window by clicking on the special menu in the top right corner of your browser, usually three lines (Windows) or three dots (macOS) and click “new private/incognito window.”
What does using a private window do?
It is a fresh slate. When you open a private window, it doesn’t load any existing cookies. This can be good and bad. It means you won’t be logged into any of your accounts or sites when you visit them, but it also means there is no history of your past searches, purchases, or other activity, so you won’t be shown targeted ads.
It logs you out. While you are using a private window, you will stay logged in to whatever accounts you have open, but as soon as you close the private window (or all of them if you have multiple private windows open), it will automatically log you out and delete the session cookies that normally keep you logged in. When browsing normally (not using a private window), cookies saved on the site will automatically log you in the next time you visit the site even after closing the window.
It doesn’t record your search history. When you do a search in a private window, the search terms and sites visited will not be saved anywhere on your device or added to your browsing history.
Websites have a harder time identifying you. Browser fingerprinting and looking at your IP make it easier to identify specific users, but as long as you don’t log in, you are making it harder for websites to figure out who you are.
It allows you to log into a website with different accounts at the same time. You could log into a site with two accounts: one in a normal browser window and one in a private window. This could be helpful if you have two banking accounts at the same bank you would like to login to at the same time. Or, if your friend is over and wants to quickly check their Facebook on your computer, simply let them login in a private window without having to log out of your account. Your IP address is still the same, but it can help to keep different account separate.
When should you use a private window?
- For things you will do once (a one-time purchase from a website)
- When you use sites that have lots of cookies and trackers (i.e.: coupon code sites, random searches)
- When you don’t want sites you visit to be in your browsing or search history
- When you are using a someone else’s device or a shared device
When should you not use a private window?
- Sites you want to stay logged in to
- Sites that have minimal cookies
- Sites that you are fine sharing cookies with
- Examples: email, online shopping, social media. These sites will likely track you when you go to other sites if those sites have 3rd-party scripts (most of them do).
Things a private window does not do
- Hide the websites you visit from your Internet Service Provider (a VPN does this).
- Hide your information from the site you are visiting (a VPN will give them a different IP address, but without a VPN, your IP address will point pretty specifically to your location).
- Hide your traffic from your network or employer (a VPN can hide traffic from a network).
- Change any level of encryption with sites you visit.
To learn more about what a VPN does, check out our Should I get a VPN article here. Take a look at our Firefox Containers article for a more nuanced way to segment what you do online.
Clearing all of your cookies is the same thing as opening a private window
You can go into your settings and delete your cookies any time you want to. This is the same thing that happens when you close all private windows except it would be for your normal browsing, not private browsing. You can also set your browser to delete all cookies every time you close it, but for most of us, logging in to our accounts every time can be annoying. This could make sense if you wanted to use multiple browsers – a browser for sites you want to stay logged in to and one with a private window for sites that you didn’t want to be able to track you. Take a look at our article on privacy-friendly browsers if this sounds interesting.
Most websites want to track you. Using a private window can decrease their effectiveness and make it harder for them to fill out their profile they have on you. By using a private window when you want to, you are in control of who gets to track and gather information about you and your activities Consider giving a private window and try and seeing how it can help you in your quest to improve your online privacy.
Check out our posts on Improving Your Privacy and Security and What Are Cookies? for more information.