The Complete Guide to Private Browsers

And why incognito mode isn’t really private browsing

By
&
Aliza Vigderman
Gabe TurnerChief Editor
Last Updated on Sep 30, 2021
By Aliza Vigderman & Gabe Turner on Sep 30, 2021

A lot of browsers claim to be private, with incognito modes that erase your search history. But if you look closer, you’ll find that while your internet service provider (ISP) can still see everything you’re doing online, other users of your device cannot. Does a real private browser exist, and if so, how can you get it?

We’ve dived deep into third-party private browsers like Tor and DuckDuckGo, as well as major browsers with incognito modes like Chrome and Firefox. Which one is right for you? Keep reading to find out.

Incognito Mode on Chrome

What Is a Private Browser?

A private browser is either a web browser that encrypts your activity before it reaches your ISP, or incognito mode on a major web browser that clears your history from other users on the same device.1 Since the term “private browser” could mean different things, make sure you know what is being hidden from your ISP versus the users on the same physical device.

Why Browse Privately?

Just as there are many reasons why people use VPNs, there are differing reasons why people browse privately:

  • Public or shared devices: If you’re using a public/shared device like a school computer, you’ll want to hide your search history from the next person who uses it.
  • Private surfing: Even if the device is privately owned, you still might not want your mom knowing exactly how much time you spent on Instagram.
  • Booking travel: Have you ever searched for a flight in the morning, returned to the search in the afternoon, and then realized the price has increased? While airlines deny that these price changes are from your search history, some studies indicate otherwise.2 Regardless, using a private browser will ensure that you see the same prices no matter when you search.
  • Privacy and security: Private browsers that hide your IP address make you less susceptible to hacking, especially when using public Wi-Fi networks. When paired with your personally identifiable information (PII), someone could use your IP address to steal your identity, in the worst-case scenario.
  • Different email accounts: Even if you’re the only one using your device, you may have multiple email accounts. To avoid the constant signing in and out, private browsing treats each window or tab separately, not affecting your next searches.
  • Sensitive research: If you’re a journalist, activist, or just someone doing sensitive research through a search engine, private browsing is always a good idea, whether you’re in a country with internet censorship or the United States.

List of Private Browsers

While the term “private browser” can refer to multiple things, we’ve listed all of the options below, whether they are third-party private browsers or your operating system’s default browser with incognito mode, otherwise known as private browsing mode.

Private Browsers

Major Browsers With Incognito Mode

  • Apple Safari
  • Firefox
  • Google Chrome (for the most privacy, use a Chrome VPN as well as incognito mode)
  • Microsoft Edge
  • Opera
Incognito Mode on Safari

How to Enable Private Browsing

If you’re using a truly private browser like Tor, then private browsing is the only option. Because it is enabled automatically, you won’t be able to turn it on or off. However, if you’re merely using incognito mode on a browser, here’s how to turn it on (to turn it off, just open a regular window or tab).

How to Use Incognito Mode on Major Browsers

Chrome (desktop)

  1. Open Chrome.
  2. Click More.
  3. Click New Incognito Window.

Chrome (Android/iOS)

  1. Open the Chrome app.
  2. Click More.
  3. Click New Incognito Tab.

Firefox

  1. Open Firefox.
  2. Click Menu.
  3. Click New Private Window.

Microsoft Edge

  1. Open Microsoft Edge.
  2. Click Settings And More.
  3. Click New InPrivate Window.

Opera

  1. Open Opera.
  2. Click File.
  3. Click New Private Window.

Safari

  1. Open Safari.
  2. Click File.
  3. Click New Private Window.

Learn more about the differences between VPNs and incognito mode.

Can Private Browsing Be Tracked?

Whether private browsing can be tracked depends on how you define “private browsing.”

If you’re using a legitimate private browser like the Tor browser, then no, you can’t be tracked, as Tor encrypts your web activity and IP address three times to ensure privacy. However, with incognito mode, your ISP can still track your every move online, but other users of the same device cannot. For the most privacy, use a third-party privacy browser or a VPN, which we’ve detailed below.

Private Browsers vs. VPNs

Even the most legitimate private browsers like Tor and DuckDuckGo encrypt your web activity only on the browser itself, not across your entire device. And if you’ve used apps like Mail, Google Maps, or Zoom, then guess what? Your ISP can still read your emails, know your location, and watch your video chats.

In contrast, VPNs hide your browsing history across your entire device, covering all web browsers and apps. VPNs encrypt your web activity and change your IP address, so you’re browsing online privately.

VyprVPN App
VyprVPN App

How You’re Tracked

It’s easy to think that we’re being dramatic by saying that tracking apps have a dark side. However, tech companies collect a ton of data about you as you travel from site to site; that is, if you aren’t using a private browser or a VPN.

Are You Trackable?

The truth is that without taking the proper precautions, everyone is trackable online due to something called cookies (and no, we’re not talking about the kind with chocolate chips). Cookies gather information about your online activity to create targeted advertisements, which may explain why after you googled “baby stroller,” ads of strollers followed you around the internet for days.

Although cookies may not store your PII, instead collecting it in an aggregated or anonymized format, they still track you and all of your online activity, resulting in a lack of privacy.

Is Tracking Preventable?

Fortunately, tracking is preventable by using either a private browser like Tor or a VPN. There are also proxy servers, but compared to VPNs, they’re not as private. Our favorite way to prevent tracking is to set up a VPN.

TIP: To hide your activity and the IP addresses of all of your internet-connected devices, use a VPN on your router. This single connection will cover all of the devices on your network.

How to Surf the Web Freely

Aside from using private browsers and/or VPNs, you can increase your online freedom and protect your browsing sessions in other ways:

  • Opt out of cookies: Even while using a VPN and private browsing, you’ll still be asked to opt in to cookies. Although it may take a few extra clicks, you should opt out of cookies whenever possible.
  • Don’t use your real information on forms: Unless it’s a necessary medical or government form, you can use a fake name and email address on forms so that companies don’t have your contact information.
  • Opt-out of data-sharing: Don’t want companies to share your data? Opt out of data collection from over 50 of the biggest companies you’ll encounter online with Simple Opt Out, an organization that has compiled all of the instructions.3
  • Turn off ad trackers: To limit ad tracking on your iPhone or iPad:
    • Go to Settings.
    • Click Privacy.
    • Click Advertising.
    • Turn on Limit Ad Tracking.

    On your Android device:

    • Click on Google Settings.
    • Click Ads.
    • Toggle Opt Out of Our Internet-Based Ads on.
  • Turn location off: Websites and apps often don’t need to know your location. To turn off location services on your iOS device:
    • Click Settings.
    • Click Privacy.
    • Click Location Services.
    • Toggle Don’t Allow to on.

    On your Android device:

    • Click Settings.
    • Click Location.
    • Turn Use Location off.
  • Limit app permissions: Whenever an app asks for permission to access your location, etc., say no whenever possible. You should allow the app to access only the least amount of information necessary to use it.

NOTE: Some apps, like Google Maps and Tinder, require your location to use their service. However, with location-based dating apps, you can change your Tinder location with a VPN if you want to hide your real location.

Summary

If you want to browse the web privately, incognito mode doesn’t cut it. Rather, we recommend using a VPN or, if you’re not using any web apps, a secure browser like Tor. The more encryption there is, like with a double VPN, the more secure you are online, and therefore the more private. For more information, read our guide on how to be anonymous online.

FAQs

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding private browsers, so we’ve decided to answer the questions we get the most.

  • Is there a truly private browser?

    There is a truly private browser called Tor, which is open source and free. Tor encrypts a user’s web activity and their device’s IP address three times so that it’s hidden from their ISP. Major browsers with incognito mode, on the other hand, aren’t truly private, as they still give your traffic to your ISP, but they do hide it from other users on the same device.

  • What is the best private browser?

    The best private browser is Tor because it is open source and free, and has triple encryption for maximum privacy.

  • Which browser does not track?

    The DuckDuckGo browser extension does not track through cookies, although it will save your search history in an aggregated and anonymized fashion.

  • What is the best free private browser?

    The best free private browser is Tor. It will encrypt your web traffic three times so your ISP can’t see it.

Citations
  1. Norton. (2020). What is private browsing? How to use it on any browser.
    us.norton.com/internetsecurity-privacy-what-is-private-browsing.html

  2. Time. (2017). The Truth About Whether Airlines Jack Up Prices If You Keep Searching the Same Flight.
    time.com/4899508/flight-search-history-price/

  3. Simple Opt Out. (2021). Opt out of all the data sharing you wouldn't opt in to.
    simpleoptout.com/