At a time when advertisers, Internet service providers and others are tracking nearly everything we do on the Internet, maintaining online privacy has never been more important.
The question is: what’s the best way to achieve that privacy?
Two of the most common tools that people use for online privacy are VPNs (virtual private networks) and browser settings such as “Incognito Mode.” While it’s true that both of these options can provide their own layers of protection, the two tools are actually very different in terms of the privacy they deliver.
So, what’s the difference, and which one is “better?” The answer may depend on the type of privacy you’re looking for.
Let’s take a closer look at each option.
A private tunnel for connecting to the Internet
A VPN provides an encrypted connection to the Internet, effectively making your connection anonymous. All of your data is encrypted as it travels to and from servers, allowing you to mask your online activity as well as any information you submit or receive on your device.
For privacy, a VPN offers several key advantages:
- Your online activity remains completely private even to your Internet Services Provider (ISP). Your ISP can’t see which websites you’re visiting, how much bandwidth you’re using or how much you’re downloading. This also means that you don’t have to worry about your ISP slapping you with surprise fees for exceeding download limits. You can also torrent without fear of your ISP tracking your every movement.
- A VPN also provides privacy from hackers who attempt to steal your data as it travels across a network. This protection is especially vital when you’re using a public Wi-Fi network, which makes it easy for hackers to view your online activity, steal login credentials, credit card information and other data.
- A VPN provides privacy from websites and online services that try to track your location. With a VPN, your location is completely hidden. This is especially beneficial when using streaming services like Netflix, which blocks content based on where you’re located. With a VPN, these services don’t know where you’re based, unlocking movies and shows from around the world that you wouldn’t ordinarily have access to.
For keeping browsing activity private and blocking cookies
Incognito Mode is a browser setting, sometimes referred to as Private Window, or InPrivate Window, depending on which browser you use. Browsing the Internet with this mode enabled helps to prevent your browser from keeping a history of the sites you visit. It also blocks cookies and other data from websites being stored on your computer.
Here’s how this privacy differs from a VPN:
- Incognito Mode keeps your browsing history private. This is beneficial if you don’t want others who use your device to see the sites you visit, or if you simply don’t want your computer (or technology companies) keeping tabs on this information.
- Incognito Mode also prevents your browser from storing cookies as you visit websites. Cookies are used to “remember” you (including login information, info about your device, demographics or other personally identifiable information, also known as PII), often for marketing purposes or “convenience.”
So, Which is Better?
An easy way to think about these two options is that a VPN keeps external entities (ISPs, hackers, governments, etc.) from tracking your online activity, while a browser’s Incognito setting prevents your local computer from saving data as you browse the Internet.
A VPN thus provides deeper layers of privacy that make your connection to the Internet completely anonymous. However, a VPN won’t necessarily stop your browser from downloading cookies or saving your browsing history. So if you want total privacy, you may want to consider a two-pronged approach: using a VPN while also having Incognito Mode enabled.
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