Soft, steady taps of fingers against keyboard keys stop just as the hypnotic hum of the heating roars through the air duct beside my desk. The wheels of my chair drag against my bedroom floor as I stand, stretch my arms, sigh, and slump back down before surveying the laptop screen before me.
“Submitted!” comforts the Quercus page open on my Google Chrome browser. “11:53 pm,” informs the bottom right corner of my laptop. “Sunday, January 13, 2019,” announces my laptop when I hover over the aforementioned corner. “Agh,” groans my throat, involuntarily, after realizing that I might enjoy more than five hours of sleep tonight. Unless…
I squint at the bottom right corner of my laptop — 11:54 pm. I peep at my door — closed, by my sister in a huff after I made fun of her for having to wear braces for two years. I pop my headphones out and scrunch my ears — snores and snorts sneak underneath my door and permeate my room. I pop my headphones back in before dragging my mouse to the three dots my Google Chrome window wears like a medal of honour on its top-right shoulder, er, side.
“New Tab?” The pop-up asks me. “New Window?”
“New Incognito Window,” I answer, through a click of my mouse.
“You’ve gone incognito,” informs the bespectacled and hat-clad entity. I count incognito mode as one of my best, nay, my best friend, because unlike my other friends, it doesn’t remember all my embarrassing missteps or mock me for them every chance I get. (I only fell down in a bus that one time, okay?)
“P,” I tell it gingerly. I glance at my closed door. “O,” I continue.
“Portal.utoronto.ca?” incognito mode guesses.
“Potterybarn.com?” incognito mode suggests. “Portuguese water dog?”
I longingly glance at Potterybarn.com, before realizing that I neither have the time nor the budget to click through its catalogue of beautiful furniture that would look even better in my room. Retracing my steps, I hit backspace twice.
“Pi,” I tap out.
“Pinterest.com?” offers incognito mode.
“Pictures of cavities,” I press enter.
Both my siblings are currently smitten, or rather ensnared, by the costly cult that is dentistry. After having made numerous trips to both the dentist and orthodontist, both of them have racked up thousands of dollars divided among braces, cavity-fillings, and other drillings into their teeth that are likely to induce anesthesia addiction. And as happens with most cults — social media influencers, Starbucks Rewards™ members, and student journalists — its members always tell you to join it.
I have no plans to listen to my siblings — I have an expensive education habit that I need to support — but their constant needling, nay, drilling, might have chipped away at both the enamel of my teeth and my confidence in their perfection.
Thus, here I am, googling pictures of cavities near midnight to assuage my fear that the suspicious black mark I have on one of my lower teeth is not a cavity.
Maybe it’s deposits of black pepper from the lime and black pepper chips I often scarf down mid-assignment? Perhaps it’s a tea leaf stuck to my tooth? It could, perchance, also be some of the Oreos that I gobble alongside the lime and black pepper chips. It most certainly is not a cavity. Right?
Even if it is not, however, I cannot let either of my siblings find my browsing history, and by extension, this chink in my armour, so they can use it to cultivate me. (Get it?)
I also do not want a constant barrage of sponsored ads from local dentists and orthodontists while I pin recipes I am never going to make or click through Pottery Barn furniture I am not going to buy. I get enough ads from St. George Dental as it is.
My incognito habits, much to the disappointment of my seventh-grade self who didn’t want to be ‘like other girls,’ are in no way weird.
Whenever anyone, like you, for example, visits a website sans incognito mode, the website stores small text files on your computer to identify you later. These files, misleadingly called cookies, are what allow websites to remember login details, items in carts, and, more insidiously, your behaviour on the website.
Cookies can remember how long you stayed on the website, what items you examined and for how long, and when you last visited the website. Like the protagonist — or antagonist, depending on how you look at it — of the book-turned-Netflix series You, cookies know that you want to be seen, heard, and known. Of course, they oblige.
Though every website can only eat, er, read its own cookies, there exist third-party advertising networks that request the cookies from the hosting website. By having possession of these cookies, these third-party networks can track you and your behaviour across multiple websites to build a profile of you. Companies and businesses can then target ads directly at you if the third-party advertiser decides that your profile fits their demographic.
Google is one of the biggest third-party networks and the biggest search engine, which means Google knows what you want before you even know you want it. Say you visit Potterybarn.com and spend a few minutes looking at a gorgeous Persian rug on sale. Based on your browsing history, Google knows you’re in the market for a rug that you can break down on without worrying about getting your clothes dirty or falling off your bed. So naturally, you’re going to see ads warning you about the selling-out of the gorgeous Persian rug you saw.
Oh, hey, the very ad I just described showed up. Weird.
This doesn’t exclusively apply to Google; shopping websites, as well as content-publishing websites, use algorithms to track your preferences to recommend other products, posts, and pictures they think you will like.
Two ways to avoid getting caught with your hand in the metaphorical cookie jar are to routinely clear your cookies and limit the websites that have access to them, or use incognito mode, which doesn’t save website cookies when you close the window.
I sometimes don’t hang up my freshly laundered clothes for weeks — I actually have a pile sitting on my bed right now — so I’ll let you guess which option I prefer.
I summon incognito mode when I need to log in to my parents’ email account and print out a coupon for them. (Side note: Hudson’s Bay has good deals, I have to admit.)
I make use of incognito mode whenever I visit Urban Dictionary, lest a Google ad suggest I buy a mug emblazoned with the definition of “truffle butter.” (Hint: it is not a baking supply, so Google at your own risk.)
I also always creep on my crushes’ social media accounts on incognito, so my logged-out self does not accidentally fall prey to my baser instincts and like their picture no matter how cute they look. (Disclaimer: they look very cute.)
Apart from targeted advertising however, I admit that I also use incognito mode because I feel a certain degree of shame. In an era of online insecurity, I fear that someday, someone will somehow hack my browsing history, discover that I was googling Ariana Grande’s barbecue grill tattoo, and judge me for having such low-brow tastes in reading material.
Or worse, they could unearth my quest for pictures of cavities, discover that I might have a cavity, and force me to go to the dentist for the first time in ten years. Then where would I be? Cemented in a costly cult and addicted to anesthesia, that’s where.
I do not want to end up there, which is why — despite not deleting my browser cookies — I use incognito mode, as should you. Meanwhile, I will maybe click on this ad for a Persian carpet that’s half off at Pottery Barn and see where that takes me.