Let’s say you want to use the incognito feature in the Chrome browser or Chrome app (The name of this feature varies depending whether you’re using Chrome, Firefox, Safari or something else.) Here’s what to do:

  1. To the right of the Chrome address bar, tap the three buttons in a vertical row (which brings up more features).
  2. Look for the New Incognito tab. Tap on that and a new window opens up.
  3. Alternately, pressing Control+Shift+N will send you to Incognito mode in just one step.
  4. You can tell you’re in Incognito mode by the Incognito icon in the middle of the screen and at the top right.

In addition to the Incognito icon, you’ll also see these warnings regarding private browsing on the home screen:

“You’ve gone incognito. Now you can browse privately, and other people who use this device won’t see your activity. However, downloads and bookmarks will be saved. Chrome won’t save the following:

  • Your browsing history
  • Cookies and site data
  • Information entered in forms

Your activity might still be visible to:

  • Websites you visit
  • Your employer or school
  • Your internet service provider”

Here’s what this means: Browsers typically store the web addresses (called URLs) of the sites you visit. That makes it easier for you to find them again later.

In private (incognito) mode, your browser works a bit differently. Your search history won’t be stored locally. This is great for concealing your browsing history from anyone else who’s using the same device, such as when you’re shopping for a surprise gift or if you’re on adult-oriented websites. But that doesn’t mean your activities are entirely private.

Your browser also stores cookies, which are little data files that have a plethora of uses. Cookies can automatically enter passwords, for instance, so you don’t have to type them each time you visit a site. Or, they can provide tracking information for advertising companies that really want to understand how you browse from site to site, all the better to help someone, somewhere sell products to you.

“The original design of web tracking features like cookies was based around the expectation that tracking would be within individual sites only, and would not connect separate browsing sessions unless the user wanted it to,” says Schoen. “Both of these norms have been violated massively by the internet advertising industry, which often creates detailed, comprehensive profiles of what people do online over time.”

Schoen adds that in some cases, private browsing mode can temporarily disconnect someone’s browsing from the technical means used to maintain most of those profiles. In other words, in private mode cookies won’t provide advertisers with the detailed information they’d otherwise mine from your activities.

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