There are a lot of misconceptions about browsing the web in 'incognito' mode, researchers say

Key Points
  • Researchers found that there are misconceptions about what's actually protected when you're browsing the web in incognito or private mode.
  • People believed that ISPs, employers and the government couldn't see what they were doing, when it's possible they can.
  • They also thought browsing in private mode would prevent against malware or viruses.
Bill Hinton | Getty Images

Browsing the web in incognito mode isn't as private as most people think.

Researchers with the University of Chicago and the Leibniz University of Hanover recently published the results of a study that included 450 participants. It found that many participants thought "incognito mode" or "private mode" in a web browser protected their online activity much more than it does.

If you're unfamiliar with private or incognito mode, here's a bit of background: typically, browsers suggest that using that option, which is accessible through the menu bar on most modern web browsers, won't track some of what you do online.

Google's Chrome web browser, for example, says that it doesn't save your browsing history, cookies and site data or information entered into forms. This doesn't mean that data — such as the websites you visit — isn't available to your school, employer or internet provider. Google warns as much when you start using incognito mode.

Despite this, lots of people seem to believe these options in web browsers can do much more than they actually do.

Here are some of the misconceptions highlighted in the report:

  • "46.5% of participants 'believed bookmarks saved in private mode would not persist in later sessions,' when they actually do.
  • "40.2% of participants thought websites would not be able to estimate a user's location," while in private mode. You can make it harder to estimate your location if you use a VPN.
  • "27.1% of participants believed private mode offered more protection against viruses and malware than standard [mode.]" This is a misconception since any files you download and open on your computer could still be infected with malware or viruses.
  • "22.0%, 37.0%, and 22.6% of participants mistakenly believed that ISPs, employers, and the government would be unable to track them when they used private mode." If you're on someone's network, chances are they can see what you're doing.

The study also suggests that 56.3% of participants incorrectly believed that browsing in private mode would hide your search history, since Google could still log a user's search and save a copy of that query online, not necessarily on your computer. I tried to replicate this in Chrome and found that a search for "How tall is Shaquille O'Neal?" wasn't logged by Google or on my local computer.

"Using private browsing mode on Chrome and Firefox can leave behind browser traces that could allow someone with access to the local machine to infer browsing history, evidence that someone has used private browsing, and more," one of the researchers, Panya Gupta, explained to me. "As a caveat, correctly finding and analyzing these browser traces to reconstruct browsing history would generally require a digital forensics expert and access to the end user’s machine."

If anything, the research shows that there are a lot of misconceptions about what's logged and what isn't when you're using incognito or private mode on a browser. It's probably safe to assume that what you're viewing online can be found or viewed by others, especially if you're on a work or school network or downloading files.