VPNs and incognito mode are two of the most popular tools for online privacy. A VPN makes it harder to track you while browsing, while incognito mode gives you a new browser that doesn’t remember your history and won’t reveal it to websites while browsing the VPN.
What is incognito mode?
Private browsing goes by many names, including InPrivate in Microsoft Edge and incognito mode in Google Chrome. Its purpose is to give your browser temporary amnesia. As long as you are in incognito mode, the browser will not store the data of the sites you visited: no addresses, no cookies, no data you entered, nothing.
Incognito mode also gives you a fresh browser state without cookies. Therefore, if you are logged into Facebook in your normal browser window, you can open a window in incognito mode and Facebook will not see you as connected while browsing with that window.
When you browse in incognito mode, nothing you do in your browser will be remembered by your own browser. The web pages you visit will not appear in your history or appear in the “recently visited” tab. If you are logged into a website, all you have to do is close the window and your browser will forget you were logged in.
However, this is all that private browsing can do, and your browser will generally tell you the same when you enter private mode.
While none of your browsing data is stored on your computer, this does not mean that it is erased at the other end. The websites you visit can still see your IP address, your Internet service provider can still see your activity, and system administrators at your workplace will still know what you were doing when you were supposed to be working. Incognito and other private browsing modes will not make you anonymous online.
RELATED: Does private or incognito mode make web browsing anonymous?
What is a VPN?
This is where VPNs come into play. When you connect to a VPN, the VPN will connect to the Internet through a private server, making it appear that that server is accessing a website instead of you. In other words, the websites you access will not see your real IP address. They will see the IP address of the VPN.
This improves your overall privacy while browsing, with the added benefit that you can spoof your location anywhere in the world where your VPN has servers. Websites will see you browsing from the region of the VPN server rather than your own physical location. This allows you to bypass regional restrictions on, for example, Netflix, or use online banking during the holidays. It’s also a great way to avoid censorship and online monitoring in repressive countries.
All of that makes VPNs popular with a wide range of users, including ordinary people who like their privacy, human rights activists living under repressive regimes, and people who use BitTorrent to download the latest movies.
RELATED: What is a VPN and why would you need one?
The gaps in VPN security
A VPN works by routing you through an encrypted connection called a secure tunnel. Your ISP or a network administrator can see that you are connecting to an external server, the VPN, but not what websites you are connected to beyond that. This part of the process works perfectly, as tunnels generally use end-to-end encryption.
However, using a VPN does not guarantee complete anonymity. While your connection is hidden, if you stay connected to your social media or Google accounts, they can still track you. In other words: if you log into Google, connect to a VPN, and then keep using your normal browser where you logged into Google, of course Google still knows who you are. Browser cookies saved in your browser can also be used to track you. (Incognito mode gives you a clean browser state, avoiding these problems.)
Here’s the elephant in the room – the VPN service you are using can see everything you are doing while it is active.
In a way, you’re trading your ISP or boss’s tracking for your VPN tracking. However, as part of their package, most VPNs promise to periodically delete their logs, the history of connections that any user has made. This is generally advertised as a “no log” policy and, on paper, means that the VPN does not keep any logs of you or your activities. This means that you cannot share that information with your ISP, advertisers, law enforcement authorities, or anyone else who wants to know what you have been doing.
You’re putting a lot of trust in the VPN of your choice, so do your research first.
How to use a VPN and private browsing together
While VPNs and incognito mode may not share any functionality, they work very well together. Many of the security gaps in VPNs can be filled with Incognito mode, while Incognito’s shortcomings are covered by VPNs. Using them together means that you are making it difficult for third parties to track you, while at the same time protecting your privacy from anyone you share your computer with.
For example, in a private browsing window, you will not log into your Google or Facebook accounts, and the cookies you have collected while browsing will also be deleted.
At the same time, the websites you are connecting to cannot see your real IP address and your Internet service provider cannot see which websites you are connecting to.
This allows you to browse in relative anonymity, although you still trust the VPN provider.
While neither VPNs nor incognito mode can guarantee total privacy, using them together brings you much closer than just using one.
If you are looking for a VPN, we recommend ExpressVPN. It’s our first pick here at How-To Geek, and many of us have used it for years. ExpressVPN is a stable company that has been around for a long time and even innovates with new features like Light path, a next-generation VPN protocol that will be open source.