Incognito guy reading The Varsity archives. Mallika Makkar/THE VARSITY

With internet anonymity becoming increasingly rare, many people find solace in private browsing, such as the experience provided by Google Chrome’s incognito mode. Incognito mode has many uses: preventing nosy trackers from collecting your personal information, sneaking past paywalls, and accessing online porn without a trace. It’s widely known that incognito mode is used to keep users’ sexual search histories under wraps, but incognito may be less secure than many think.

Evan Andersen, a fourth-year engineering student, discovered this the hard way. Recently, Andersen opened his computer intending to play an online game, only to see the porn he viewed in incognito mode hours before pop up on the screen instead. He realized that there was a glitch in his graphic card. “[T]he operating system is supposed to isolate different programs on your computer, so they don’t affect each other,” Andersen explains. “[The] driver should erase memory when it is passed between applications, otherwise, different users on a computer could spy on each other. I complained about [Google Chrome] because I think they should try and fix the problem on their end.” 

Andersen was surprised since he didn’t intend to find the glitch. “Normally, computer security is compromised by an actual attack, not just an accident.”

While Andersen’s experience was caused by a glitch, users of incognito mode should be aware that, even when fully functioning, the browser does not completely mask you. Your Internet provider is still able to see your search history, and the websites you visit can still track your habits. 

Despite that, Andersen believes incognito browsing is enough for the average person. “I think it’s fine if you understand what it is used for, which is privacy from other users of the same computer,” he says. 

Those who want more thorough privacy would have to dive into the deep web.

The deep web is a collection of networks which cannot be found using typical search engines and that encrypt the users’ identity. Users install a deep web browser — like the popular Tor — in order to access it. Of course, not everyone desires anonymity for innocent reasons, and the deep web has attracted a negative reputation. For this reason, security agencies monitor it for evidence of criminal behaviour like child pornography and black market transactions.

The deep web is not inherently malovolent , and it is a good option for anyone who values online privacy.

True anonymity however, doesn’t come simply by installing Tor, and can be a demanding task. Michael Hampton, Internet security expert, suggests not running Tor on Windows, which he sees as a vulnerable operating system, and also advocates against using Google. Instead, he suggests using search engine Startpage. Hampton encourages secrecy seekers to avoid using Tor at or near their homes, and using a laptop as a workstation because it is easier to hide evidence than a desktop, because laptops are more easily destroyed.

Less intense options include installing a virtual private network (VPN), which encrypts the data you send and receive, or installing add-ons like ‘HTTPS Everywhere’, which makes websites default to using the more secure HTTPS protocol.

Achieving online anonymity is a rigorous process, which is difficult, and can require a serious investment of time and money. For those who choose to invest in online privacy, it is best to remember that nothing done on the Internet is truly private. Accordingly, Internet users should be mindful of what we share and the sites we visit.

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