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What Google Chrome's incognito mode really does (and doesn't do) for you

Don't be fooled. You're not actually incognito when using incognito mode.
Written by Sabrina Ortiz, Editor
Incognito Mode
Getty Images/Anadolu/Contributor

We rely on the internet for so many tasks these days that, naturally, we'd prefer for some of those searches to stay private. For that reason, many people turn to "incognito" browsing on Google Chrome. However, this mode might not be as private as you think. 

A class action 2020 lawsuit filed against Google claimed the company misled users about what "private" browsing meant and still collected user data in incognito mode. At the end of 2023, Google reached a $5 million settlement and, as a result, the company is now preparing to issue a new "warning" that helps better inform users of what to expect from data collection. 

Also: The best VPN deals right now

The expanded warning, spotted on Chrome Canary by MSPowerUser, addresses one of the lawsuit's complaints, stating, 

Others who use this device won't see your activity, so you can browse more privately. This won't change how data is collected by websites you visit and the services they use, including Google. Downloads, bookmarks, and reading list items will be saved.

Whether Google Chrome incognito mode is a good enough solution for your private browsing needs depends on your definition of "private." We break it down for you below. 

When to rely on incognito mode

Incognito mode is a solid option if you aim to keep your search history private from other users using your device. While using incognito mode, Google won't save your browsing history, cookies, and site data on the device. This means that once you exit your incognito browsing tab, you won't need to worry about another user seeing what you were searching for. 

Ultimately, it spares you from clearing your browsing history, cache, and cookies yourself, which some may find convenient, especially when doing a quick search for a surprise such as a birthday present or date night on a shared device. It can also be handy if you share a device with your child. 

When not to rely on incognito mode

If you aim to keep your browsing activity secure from website tracking and data collection, then you should not rely on Google Chrome incognito mode. As the updated disclaimer reflects, even in incognito mode, websites you visit can still collect your browsing data and track you, including Google.

Also worth noting is that even in incognito mode, your activity might still be visible to your employer or school, so if you are an employee or a student trying to get away with visiting a site you're not supposed to, incognito mode won't help you in that regard either. 

If you want truly private browsing, use a VPN

A more secure option for private browsing is a VPN, which encrypts your data and hides the IP address, making it much more difficult to trace your browsing activity back to you. 

There are VPNs for all different use cases and price points, with some being as low as $1 per month. To help you find the best one, ZDNET rounded up the best VPN services of 2024.

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