VPNs and Incognito Mode are two of the most popular tools for online privacy. A VPN makes you harder to track while browsing, while Incognito Mode gives you a fresh browser that doesn’t remember your history—and won’t give you away to websites while browsing on the VPN.
What Is Incognito Mode?
Private browsing has a lot of names, including InPrivate in Microsoft Edge and Incognito Mode in Google Chrome. Its purpose is to give your browser temporary amnesia. Whenever you’re in incognito mode, the browser will not store the data of the sites you visited: no addresses, no cookies, none of the data you entered, nothing.
Incognito Mode also gives you a fresh browser state without any cookies. So, if you’re logged in to Facebook in your normal browser window, you can open an Incognito Mode window and Facebook won’t see you as logged in while you browse with that window.
When you browse in Incognito Mode, nothing you do in your browser will be remembered by your browser itself. Web pages you visit won’t appear in your history or pop up in the “recently visited” tab. If you log in to a website, all you have to do is close the window and your browser will forget you ever signed in.
However, this is all that private browsing can do, and your browser will usually tell you as much when you go into private mode.
While none of your browsing data is stored on your computer, this doesn’t mean that it’s erased on the other end. 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 up to when you were supposed to be working. Incognito and other private-browsing modes won’t make you anonymous online.
What Is a VPN?
This is where VPNs come in. When you connect to a VPN, it will connect to the internet using a private server, making it appear as though that server is accessing a website rather than you. In other words, websites you access won’t see your real IP address. They’ll see the VPN’s IP address.
This improves your overall privacy while browsing, with the added bonus that you can spoof your location to anywhere in the world where your VPN has servers. Websites will see you as browsing from the VPN server’s region rather than your own physical location. This allows you to circumvent region restrictions on, for example, Netflix, or use online banking while on holiday. It’s also a great way to bypass online censorship and tracking in repressive countries.
All that makes VPNs popular among a wide range of users, including regular people who like their privacy, human rights activists who live under repressive regimes, and people who use BitTorrent to download the latest movies.
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’re connecting to an outside server—the VPN’s—but not what websites you’re connected to beyond that. This part of the process works like a charm, as tunnels generally use end-to-end encryption.
However, using a VPN does not guarantee complete anonymity. While your connection is cloaked, if you remain signed in to your social media or Google accounts, they can still track you. In other words: If you sign in to Google, connect to a VPN, and then keep using your normal browser where you’re signed in to Google—of course, Google still knows who you are. Browser cookies saved in your browser may 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’re using can see every single thing you’re doing while it’s active.
In a way, you’re trading tracking by your ISP or your boss for tracking by your VPN. However, as part of their package, most VPNs promise to regularly delete their logs—the history of the connections any user has made. This is generally advertised as a “no-logs” policy, and on paper, it means that the VPN has no record of you or your doings. This means that it can’t share that information with your ISP, advertisers, law enforcement, or anybody else who might want to know what you’ve been up to.
You’re placing a lot of trust in whatever VPN you choose, 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 do work extremely well together. Many of the gaps in VPN security can be filled using Incognito Mode, while Incognito’s shortcomings are covered by VPNs. Using them in tandem means that you’re making it harder for third parties to track you while also protecting your privacy from anybody you share your computer with.
For example, in a private-browsing window, you won’t be signed in to your Google or Facebook accounts, and any cookies you’ve gathered while browsing are also deleted.
At the same time, the websites you connect to can’t see your real IP address, and your internet service provider can’t see which websites you’re connecting to.
This allows you to browse in relative anonymity—although you’re still trusting the VPN provider.
While neither VPNs nor Incognito Mode can guarantee complete privacy, using them together brings you a lot closer to it than just using one.
If you’re looking for a VPN, we recommend ExpressVPN. It’s our top pick here at How-To Geek, and many of us have used it for years. ExpressVPN is a stable company that’s been around for a long time, and it even innovates with new features like Lightway, a next-generation VPN protocol that will be open-source.