Incognito vs VPN

4 min
incognito mode vs. VPN

Incognito mode is a common feature of all major modern browsers. It is known to hide the traces of your online actions from others. VPN is a similar tool but it also protects your privacy. Do they work similarly? Which one is better and in which cases? This article sheds some light on the VPN vs private browsing ‘duel’. Read on to learn who the winner is!

Is incognito mode a VPN?

Let’s have a look at those two concepts and compare VPN vs incognito mode. As you are most probably aware, VPN increases the privacy of whoever uses it when going online. It hides your IP address and encrypts all of your data transfers, shielding it from prying eyes. It works as a tunnel from your machine to the remote server. Does incognito work in a similar way? Not at all! In fact, the only similarity is the general purpose of protecting your privacy.

What’s incognito mode?

This privacy feature of Internet browsers was first introduced in Apple’s Safari back in 2005. Since then, all major producers have adapted it. Nowadays, it’s an obvious standard. New Internet users might wonder what the private mode is. In short: it’s a special separate window (s) that conceals the obvious traces of the content you’ve been surfing. It was so common to delete browsing history and cookie files that private browsing was invented. People simply wanted to hide their private content from their relatives, who all used the same computer. That is the point of incognito mode: hiding from other users of a given device. Another is to be able to open another browsing session. This allows you to log in to any online account, even if someone is already logged in on this particular service. This way, you can check your Facebook without logging out whoever was just checking his/her Facebook.

How does incognito work?

Private browsing works roughly the same in all major browsers, so this description should fit all of them. Technicalities may vary over time if new techniques of privacy protection are invented. So how does this work?

  1. As long as incognito tabs are opened, a separate browsing session is kept up. This means you can log in to websites as a new user.
  2. Browsing history, forms data, and downloads lists are not recorded. Temporary internet files are not saved on disk.
  3. Cookies and webpages’ cache are stored within the incognito session and deleted when you close all the Incognito windows.
  4. Files you download and bookmarks you save are kept normally.

If you want your private online activity to remain private, you need to clean up after yourself. Private browsing simplifies this, but you still need to remember to do one thing: close all the incognito windows. Only then is the second session terminated, cookies deleted and cache wiped. If those windows remain open for a long time, then websites can still track you and privacy protection loses its point. That may be OK if you only wish to be logged in on two accounts at the same time, though. 

Is incognito safe?

This simple question has no straightforward answer. What do we understand by ‘safe’? As mentioned above, the incognito mode works only inside the browser and can only protect you to some extent. To put it simply, private browsing has a low safety level. It may come in handy when you use a publicly available computer, like in an Internet café or at your friend’s house. Leaving behind sensitive data (like logins and passwords) on such machines can be potentially dangerous. They can be freely accessed, even to hijack your identity. Using an incognito mode for a short time leaves no data to steal behind you. But as smartphones got more and more prevalent, we use fewer and less shared computers. When it comes to real Internet safety, you need to put more serious measures to use.

VPN vs incognito

As opposed to incognito mode, Virtual Private Network extends far beyond your browser. Typically, you need to subscribe to a provider that supplies you with a secure (encrypted) connection to a remote server. This, in turn, works as a gateway to the rest of the Internet. So the principle of VPN is not about cleaning up after you. It’s about encrypting your Web requests on the fly and decrypting incoming data. This ensures that anyone attempting to snoop on your online activity will be left with undecipherable gibberish.

Aside from a general principle, VPN also works differently from the incognito mode in practice. The latter is a separate window of your browser. The former uses a program dedicated to supervising all your online connections, encrypting them, and sending them directly to the VPN server. So it’s not a module of an application. It’s a networking system connecting two devices, most often located miles apart.

Is incognito mode a VPN?

After reading the above, the answer is obvious: no, that’s a basic misconception. Those two technologies both protect your safety and privacy, but in different ways, with different techniques, and on totally different principles. A little confusion might arise in one situation, though. Many VPN providers offer not only several apps for popular operating systems, but also browser extensions. Those set up a VPN tunnel for online traffic from that browser only. So yes, a VPN and a private mode can be handled in a slightly similar way within the browser. Still, they remain totally separate mechanisms. 

An interesting question arises now. If VPN and incognito mode are not the same, then can you combine them?

Do VPNs work on incognito?

The many differences mentioned above have an interesting nuance. VPN and private browsing do not interfere with each other. So you can use both at the same time! The only question you need to ask yourself is: what do I need? Let’s sum this up in a list. If you wish to:

  • hide your actions from other users of a given computer – use private mode;
  • have a second session of logins in one browser – use private mode;
  • protect your privacy from online entities (websites, your ISP) – use VPN;
  • shield yourself from remote hacking attempts – use VPN;
  • hide your geolocation by changing your IP – use VPN.

If you are sensitive about your safety, you may be connected to a VPN 24/7. Then, if you find yourself in a need of a private mode, you can use it on top of the VPN. Using both all the time is redundant in most cases, but it certainly gives you double privacy protection.

Now you understand the differences and applications of those two popular networking technologies. Wondering which is better has no point. Instead, you should understand what is suitable for you at a given time. And there is no actual duel between them, but rather a cooperation when you need top privacy and security.

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