Privacy glossary

Private (incognito) window


What is a private (incognito) window?

A private window (or incognito window), is a browser window that forgets everything you did in it when you close it. Different browsers use different names for the same feature. Brave, Safari, and Firefox use “private window,” while Chrome uses “incognito window” and Edge uses “InPrivate window.” Note that this “forgetting” only refers to data stored on your device.

To keep things simple, this article will refer generally to private, incognito, and InPrivate windows as “private windows.”

What does a private window do?

When you first open a private window, its cookies, local storage, and cache are empty, as if you were launching the browser for the first time. This means you won’t be logged in to any of the sites you’re logged in to in your normal, non-private browser windows.

Private windows store history and cookies as you’re browsing, so that you can log in to sites as normal. However, private window history and cookies are kept separate from those of your normal windows. When you close the private window, the browser deletes the private window’s cookies, local storage, cache, and browsing history, leaving your normal windows untouched.

Does a private window look just like a regular browser window?

By default, browsers will disable your extensions in private windows (in part to mitigate the privacy risks of extensions). You can re-enable specific extensions that you trust. (It’s especially important to be aware of this if you’re relying on an extension to block trackers—if you don’t re-enable it, you might end up with less privacy in private windows than in normal ones!)

Private windows do, however, carry over most of your settings—such as font size and dark mode preference—as well as your bookmarks and browsing history.

How private are “private” windows?

It’s important to understand that private windows don’t make your browsing activity completely private:

  • Unless you’re using a tracker-blocking browser or extension, websites can still track you within private windows until you close them.
  • Websites can still see your IP address, which is the same IP address they would see if you were using a normal window.
  • Advanced fingerprinting techniques may even be able to detect that your private windows and normal windows are in the same browser, and correlate your activity across them.
  • If you enable extensions in private windows, they can see and modify everything you do, just as they can in normal windows.

Do private windows offer any protection?

Private windows do offer some protection. When you close a private window, any cookies that it stored are deleted, which means those cookies can’t be used to correlate your subsequent browsing activity in a normal window.

(Note, however, that cookies aren’t the only tool for tracking. There are some advanced tracking techniques—such as certain kinds of fingerprinting—that can correlate activity between a private and a normal window.)

Private windows don’t protect you from public or untrustworthy Wi-Fi networks or ISPs: normal-window and private-window activity look exactly the same to someone snooping on the network. You can use a VPN, such as Brave VPN, to protect yourself. A VPN has the additional benefit of hiding your real IP address from websites.

Private windows offer great protection from other people using your browser on your device. If you do all your browsing in a private window, closing the window logs you out of all sites and clears your history with one click. If you’re using a public-use computer, such as in a library, or if you need to hide your activity from someone else on a shared home computer, you should always use a private window.

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