The Hidden Truth Behind Google’s Incognito Mode

Google's Incognito Mode may not be so incognito after all.

Most people go into “Incognito Mode” on their Google Chrome browser when they want to keep their web browsing history and cookies (small files about you, not the snack) a secret from others using the same device. But a study from Vanderbilt University revealed that Google can still identify you—even when you’re “incognito.”

The study analyzed how Google collected data across an array of devices such as Androids and Chromebooks and services like YouTube or Google. The authors discovered that Google can still link your identity to the websites you browsed despite being undercover in Incognito Mode. These are the other creepy things Google already knows about you.

Each time you enter Google’s Incognito Mode, a message pops up on the screen that states, “Now you can browse privately, and other people who use this device won’t see your activity.” While it specifies that Chrome doesn’t save your browsing history, cookies, and information you enter into forms while incognito, it does warn you that your activity may still be visible to the websites you visit, internet service providers, and the school or employer that controls the network.

While other people using the device may not be able to view your browsing history, it is possible for your browsing history to be linked to your Google Account while using Google’s Incognito Mode. The study on Google Data Collection showed that for this to happen while incognito, you would first have to visit a third-party website that uses Google’s advertising and publisher products, and then log into your personal account on “a widely used Google service,” like Gmail. When you visit the third-party website, it sets a browser cookie that is not originally associated with your Google Account but is stored on your local mass storage. Then, by logging into your personal Google Account after visiting the third-party website, Google can connect these stored cookies (and thus, your browsing history) with the personal information in your account.

Luckily, there’s a way you can bypass these identifiers and still remain covert: Do not log into your Google accounts while you’re browsing in Incognito Mode. If you do sign into one of your Google accounts while digitally incognito, the Vanderbilt study suggests manually clearing your browser cookies before logging in, to prevent Google from retroactively linking your personal account information to your private browsing history. Here are 10 more ways you can protect yourself from online scams.

In short, when it comes to Internet privacy and security, even Google’s Incognito Mode can still leave your identity vulnerable to exposure. Of course, we can’t entirely blame Google. After all, Google isn’t the only company that is compromising your online privacy.

Ashley Lewis
Ashley is an Assistant Editor at Reader’s Digest. She received her Master’s Degree from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2015. Before joining Reader’s Digest, she was a Jason Sheftell Fellow at the New York Daily News and interned at Seventeen and FOX News. When Ashley is not diligently fact-checking the magazine or writing for, she enjoys cooking (butternut squash pizza is her signature dish), binge-watching teen rom-coms on Netflix that she’s way too old for, and hiking (and falling down) mountains.