Private browsing, or ‘incognito’ modes, have become a familiar option for web users in recent years. But what does this ambiguous term actually mean? While it sounds like a simple way to protect yourself online, is it actually as safe as the name suggests?

During a normal session, your browser — Chrome, Firefox, Edge or similar — will keep a record of your search requests and the sites you visit. This can be useful in terms of improving your experience by caching pages and remembering passwords, but it does mean that they hold a record of your personal information.

What is incognito mode?

Incognito, or equivalent private browsing features, can be found in all major web browsers. Incognito’s primary function is to make sure that the local data from your browsing session is not stored or recorded. This means your history, passwords and cookies will be deleted when the session is over.

The key benefit of incognito modes is keeping activity that happens in the incognito window private — from other users of shared devices, and from advertisers who will be unable to track your activity using cookies. It is also a simple way to prevent social media sites like Facebook from tracking your searches and online activity to benefit targeted advertising.

If you’re having a private conversation or conducting any activity you do not wish to show up in your browsing history, such as shopping for a gift that could then come up in retargeted ads, it can be a very simple solution to ensure that your computer doesn’t retain digital footprints after you’ve logged off.

Issues with incognito

As useful as it may be, incognito browsing does not keep you fully secure. While it may hide your data from other users on the same device, incognito modes are not secure or anonymous because they do not stop your data from being accessed via your IP address.

Not concealing your IP address means that your data can still be intercepted by your internet provider, or other third parties such as schools and places of work. While this is not necessarily malicious, it does mean that your activity can be monitored regardless of whether you’re using private browsing or not. Chrome and Firefox both specifically warn about this on the opening screen of a new private browsing window.

For many people, private browsing modes may feel like a simple and effective way to secure their online sessions, but it is far from being a secure way to browse online.

While there is no way to guarantee total protection on the internet, there are ways to dramatically improve your privacy with higher levels of anonymity.

What is a proxy?

Every device that connects to the internet is assigned a unique IP address, which allows data to be sent to the correct locations. However, it can also be used to identify your device and your geographic location.

A proxy server operates as a gateway between your computer and the wider internet. This is done by intercepting all of the data sent and received by your computer and redirecting it, sending data to the site you are accessing on your behalf.

This method means that the sites you access are at no point in direct contact with your device and can only see the details of the proxy server, completely hiding your IP address.

How can it be used?

Because there is no direct contact between the device and the internet, proxy servers can have multiple uses aside from protecting against malicious attackers. A common example of this are schools and offices, where a proxy can be used to block access to certain websites or types of content – or alternatively, to get around these blocks.

Proxy servers can provide a wide range of features to improve internet functionality, security and privacy, making them extremely useful for businesses as well as personal use. For example, businesses with a large number of devices on their network can use proxy techniques, including network address translation, to make all the devices on their office network appear anonymous, so it is much harder for hackers to target specific machines for attacks.

Include a VPN for increased security

For increased protection, a Virtual Private Network or VPN is the answer. A VPN is an online service which provides web access to a range of secure servers based across the world. Users can connect to the internet via these servers, rather than using unencrypted connections.

Many people work remotely or use mobile devices to access sensitive data such as online banking details. By using a VPN server to connect to a network, users will not only make sure that their IP address is hidden, but are also guaranteed end-to-end encryption on any data sent via their connection.

There is no single method for guaranteeing complete privacy and anonymity online, but by using a proxy server or VPN client alongside antivirus software, you can be confident that your sensitive information will remain secure.

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