Closeup of a computer monitor with Chrome in incognito mode open.
Jordan Gloor / How-To Geek

Whatever you do, don’t exclusively use incognito mode to protect yourself while torrenting. It leaves you wide open to tracking. Instead, use a VPN because it actually hides your IP address and encrypts your connection.
Torrenting isn’t strictly legal and you might get into trouble for downloading copyrighted material, but thankfully there are ways you can protect yourself. However, your browser’s incognito mode isn’t one of them, despite plenty of people on Reddit and other advice sites seeming to think so.

What Incognito Mode Does

Incognito mode, also called private browsing, is a special mode on your browser that wipes the digital slate clean. You’re signed out of everything, your browser temporarily forgets your history, and the result is that it’s like starting over with a brand-new browser. Once you finish the session, its history is deleted, so it was like you were never there, too.

The new incognito session is like a layer over your regular browsing, so once you end the session your browser will act as if nothing happened. Your old tabs are there, your history is there, it’s just a short period that passed like it never really happened.

Incognito mode is pretty nifty, but, as it says when you start up the new session, it doesn’t actually cloak you in any way from the outside world. It just makes it so your browser doesn’t remember anything. This temporary amnesia doesn’t affect your actual web connection at all.

chrome browser incognito window

The feeling of anonymity you get from using incognito mode is exactly that: a feeling. Since anyone using the computer won’t see what you’ve been doing, it’s only natural to think that nobody else will, either; it’s probably the reason why so many people out there think using just incognito mode is enough to avoid tracking. However, the other people using your computer aren’t the only ones watching.

How Tracking Works

In fact, the only tracking incognito mode works against that done by others that use your computer. Anybody looking in from outside, so to speak, when you’re actually on the web can see exactly what you’re up to. For example, the sites you visit will still see where you’re accessing them from and your internet service provider (ISP) will still be able to log your browsing information.

This is a problem in and of itself—in the United States, for example, ISPs can sell your data—but it becomes an even bigger issue if you’re torrenting. In this case, the tracking is usually done by copyright watchdogs like the DMCA. Usually what they do is attach a tracker to a torrent and then “follow” that back to the torrenter. Once they track their quarry down, a warning or fine is issued.

To do so, all a tracker needs is your IP address, a set of numbers that shows your location and that’s automatically broadcast whenever you use the internet. Logic dictates that somehow altering IP is how you avoid tracking. However, using incognito mode doesn’t fix this issue—all it does is make your browser forgetful. Trackers can still track you in private mode, with all the fines and unpleasantness that comes with that.

What You Should Use Instead of Incognito Mode

Enter virtual private networks, better known as VPNs, a much more powerful tool that can fake your IP address—called spoofing—and secure your connection. If using incognito mode while torrenting is like putting a blindfold on in the hope it prevents others from seeing you, a VPN is the real thing, turning you into a digital ninja who can’t be identified by just about anybody.

Though VPNs aren’t perfect (not by a long shot) for torrenters they’re a great solution. Besides spoofing your IP address, they also encrypt your connection, meaning that even if a tracker tries to trace your connection back through other means all the information they find will be gobbledygook.

In fact, we’d go so far as to say that a VPN is the only real way in which torrenters can protect themselves from tracking. All other methods used to spoof your IP don’t work as well. While VPN alternatives like proxies and Tor are great for other activities, for torrenting only VPNs offer the full range of protection you need (though you should avoid connecting to a US VPN server while torrenting).

That doesn’t mean incognito mode is completely useless, though: when used in conjunction with a VPN, you’re making your digital footprint extremely light. One handy ability of private browsing is that it signs you out of all social accounts, like Google, Facebook, etc. Though it doesn’t help torrenters much, it’s a great way to avoid marketers and their browser cookies, small files that can track you online.

For torrenters, though, that’s just an extra advantage. VPNs are the mainstay of your security. We’ve put together a guide to picking a good VPN for torrenting, though you can’t go wrong with services like Mullvad or IVPN, which hide your activity while also maintaining high speeds. Whatever you do, though, make sure not to torrent with just incognito mode on.

The Best VPN Services of 2023

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Private Internet Access
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Proton VPN
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Mullvad VPN
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Mullvad VPN
Profile Photo for Fergus O'Sullivan Fergus O'Sullivan
Fergus is a freelance writer for How-To Geek. He has seven years of tech reporting and reviewing under his belt for a number of publications, including GameCrate and Cloudwards. He's written more articles and reviews about cybersecurity and cloud-based software than he can keep track of---and knows his way around Linux and hardware, too.
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