What is the difference between Incognito and VPN?
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VPNs and incognito modes are among the most popular tools for online privacy. A VPN keeps you tracked while browsing, while Incognito mode gives you a new browser that doesn’t remember your history—and won’t give you websites while browsing on a VPN.
What is incognito mode?
Private browsing has many names, including InPrivate in Microsoft Edge and Incognito mode in Google Chrome. Its purpose is to temporarily lose your browser’s memory. When you’re in incognito mode, your browser won’t store the data of the sites you’ve visited: no addresses, no cookies, none of the data you entered, nothing.
Incognito mode also gives you a new browser status without any cookies. So, if you log into Facebook in your normal browser window, you can open an Incognito window and Facebook won’t see you logged in while browsing with that window.
When you browse incognito, your browser will not remember anything you do in your browser. Web pages you visit will not appear in your history and will not appear in the Recently Visited tab. If you are logged into a website, all you have to do is close the window and your browser will forget that you are logged in at any time.
However, that’s all private browsing can do, and your browser will usually tell you just as much when you switch to private mode.
While none of your browsing data is stored on your computer, that doesn’t mean it’s been erased from the other end. The websites you visit can still see your IP address, your ISP can still see your activity, and system administrators at your workplace will still know what you were doing when you were supposed to be working. Incognito and other private browsing modes will not make you anonymous online.
Related: Does private or incognito mode make browsing the web anonymous?
What is a VPN?
This is where VPNs come in. When you connect to a VPN, you will connect to the Internet using a private server, which makes it look as if that server is accessing a website for you. In other words, the websites you access will not see your real IP address. They will see the IP address of the VPN.
This improves your general privacy while browsing, with the added bonus that you can spoof your location anywhere in the world where your VPN has servers. Websites will see you as browsing from the VPN server region rather than your actual location. This allows you to circumvent region restrictions, for example, Netflix, or use online banking while on vacation. It is also a great way to bypass online censorship and tracking in repressive countries.
All this makes VPNs popular among a wide range of users, including ordinary people who love their privacy, human rights activists who live under oppressive regimes, and people who use BitTorrent to download the latest movies.
Related: What is a VPN, and why would I need one?
Vulnerabilities in VPN Security
A VPN works by routing you through an encrypted connection called a secure tunnel. Your ISP or network administrator can see that you’re connecting to an external server – a VPN – but not to the websites you connect to afterwards. This part of the process works like a charm, with tunnels generally using end-to-end encryption.
However, using a VPN does not guarantee complete anonymity. While your connection is hidden, if you stay signed in to your social media or Google accounts, they can still track you. In other words: If you’re signed into Google, connect to the VPN, and then continue to use your regular browser where you’re signed into Google — and of course, Google still knows who you are. Browser cookies saved in your browser can also be used to track you. (Incognito mode gives you a clean browser state, avoiding these issues.)
Here’s the elephant in the room: The VPN you’re using can see everything you’re doing while it’s active.
In a way, you are 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 connections made by any user. This is generally advertised as a “no logs” policy, and on paper, it means that the VPN has no log of you or your business. This means that it cannot share this information with your ISP, advertisers, law enforcement, or anyone else who might want to know what you’re going to do.
You place a lot of trust in any VPN you choose, so do your research first.
How to use VPN and private browsing together
While VPNs and Incognito may not share any functions, they work very well together. Many gaps in VPN security can be filled with incognito mode, while VPNs cover the shortcomings of incognito mode. Using them in tandem means you make it more difficult for third parties to track you while also protecting your privacy from whoever you share your computer with.
For example, in the Private Browsing window, your Google or Facebook accounts will not be logged in, and any cookies you collected while browsing are deleted.
At the same time, the websites you are connecting to cannot see your real IP address, and your ISP cannot know which websites you are connecting to.
This allows you to browse in relative anonymity – even though you still trust the VPN provider.
While neither VPNs nor incognito mode can guarantee complete privacy, using them together brings you much closer to it than just using one.
If you are 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 has been around for a long time and is even innovating with new features like Lightway, a next generation VPN protocol that will be open source.