Last updated: Jun 30, 2021

Why Private Browsing Isn’t Very Private and How a VPN Can Help

When talking about our privacy online, we all have our little tips and tricks on how to stay safe. Many people use private browsing, such as Google’s “Incognito Mode,” to keep others from seeing their activity online. But how private is this private browsing really?

In a study by the University of Chicago, more than 40% of the 460 participants said they used Incognito Mode to hide their location from websites that they visited. And more than one-third of them thought that Incognito Mode would hide activity online from an employer (PDF). Unfortunately, neither of those beliefs is true. In fact, private browsing is much less private than you might think.

Incognito Mode explained

When we open a regular tab in a web browser, it logs certain information about your activities online. This information includes details such as the website’s URL, when you visited it and other identifying information about you and your computer. Small files called cookies store this information your computer. These files can be used for things like keeping track of items that you put in a shopping cart, saving login information or remembering your zip code. They can also allow advertisers to track your site to site activity, or target you with certain ads. Private browsing helps to eliminate some of this.

Opening Chrome's Incognito Mode window
Google’s “Incognito Mode” warns that your activity may still be visible to others

When you close a private window, most of the information about your web session will be deleted – but this only applies to the information stored directly on your own computer. This means if you’re still logged into your Google account, Google can still track you. If you’re on the company’s WiFi, your employer can still see the sites that you visit. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can also see your activity, the websites you visit, the files you download. Advertisers love that information and will pay a hefty fee for access to it. The government can also see your activity by monitoring you in real-time. They can also subpoena your ISP to retrieve the logs of your activity.

A private browsing window can’t erase the records of your visit from servers or from networks you went through to get to a site. It also doesn’t encrypt any of your personal data. This is where a VPN can help.

What a VPN covers that private browsing doesn’t

VPN is short for “Virtual Private Network,” and it provides an umbrella of encryption for your internet travels that Incognito Mode doesn’t. Think of a VPN in the terms of watching ants going into an anthill. From above we can see that there is plenty of traffic. However, we have no way of knowing how many ants there are inside, what they’re doing, or where they’re heading. A VPN provides the same kind of protection for users online. The government or your ISP may be able to tell that you’re utilizing a VPN, but they can’t see where you’re headed or what you’re doing thanks to the encryption being provided.

VPN network graphic showing You, the VPN and the Internet
VPNs put a wall between your information and anyone who might try to steal it

Encryption also protects against identity theft by hiding your personal information and can provide some other perks as well. Most paid VPN services won’t log your activity online and they also shield your IP address. This means that certain sites that block content based on the region you’re in (such as Netflix which legally has to offer different programming globally), you can unlock content that wouldn’t normally be available to you. It also allows for file sharing without the threat of fines. Most ISPs will report music or movie sharing when they can see that activity.

Some top contenders for VPN services include Surf Shark, Nord VPN, and Express VPN. Prices typically range from around $5 – $15/month with a subscription. Once you’ve signed up for a VPN service, you’ll install an app that connects you to the VPN, on top of your existing internet connection. You’ll want to switch this connection on before browsing to the sites that you’d like to keep hidden.

When to use private browsing and when to use a VPN

In private windows, most browsers have protections against cookies and tracking. When the private browser window is closed, this personal information gets erased. So if you’re logging into a public computer and don’t want to have your passwords saved, private browsing can help. The same goes for if you want to skip targeted ads, log into multiple accounts without having to log another out, or simply for gift shopping on a shared computer.

When you really want to be stealthy, a VPN shields your activity, information and location from outside prying eyes. In other words, situations such as checking a bank account, or working with other sensitive information on a public WiFi connection. If you are one of the many who enjoys personal file sharing, your ISP may log that activity and even suspend your service. A VPN can shield that, and save you some headaches or possibly even fines. Being in a different country can also make it difficult to access certain sites or shows. Using a VPN can unlock them as well.

Private Browsing

  • When you’re only worried about clearing information from the computer you’re on
  • Logging into multiple accounts at the same time on one computer
  • Trying to surprise someone with a gift who shares your computer
  • Searching or accessing private information on a shared or public computer
  • To make sure any sensitive form information isn’t left behind when you close your browser

VPN

  • When you’re worried about hiding information from the outside world (ISPs, hackers, etc)
  • If you want privacy while using a public or work network
  • To access global streaming content from services such as Netflix
  • Downloading or sharing files privately
  • To bypass web censorship or surveillance in a foreign country
  • To avoid having searches logged or traced

So what do we recommend?

Overall, it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your privacy and security online. Some folks may say ‘I have nothing to hide’ or ‘who would want to spy on me’? While this may be true the majority of the time, the one time it’s not can lead to large, often time-consuming problems with things like identity theft and credit card fraud.

That’s why we recommend using a VPN anytime you’re on an insecure network (like coffee shop and hotel WiFi) or are doing anything online you wouldn’t want your mother to see. If you’re simply doing some gift shopping for your better half, a private browsing window is just fine.