You probably expect your “private” browser to be private. It’s not. So-called private browsers are a standard feature of several web browsers, and have private-sounding names like Private Browsing, Private Tab, and Private Window. Using a private browsing mode can help you to do a lot of things, but maintaining total privacy isn’t one of them.
That doesn’t mean they’re not useful.
It’s important to understand what a private browser does, and does not, do. For instance, do you know that browsing history can still be accessed in most browsers when you browse in private mode? Chances are, you want privacy and safety when you go online. So how do you get it?
Hint: Think VPN or virtual private network.
The number one reason people use Private Browsing is “Embarrassing Searches.”
After asking users of Private Browsing about their knowledge of the feature, we informed these respondents about what privacy protections Private Browsing actually provides, and asked about their emotional reaction:
“Private Browsing mode only prevents your browser history from being recorded on your computer and does not offer any additional protection such as preventing the websites you visit from collecting your information (e.g. your searches on a search engine). How does that make you feel?”
These respondents reported feeling “Surprised”, “Misled,” “Confused,” or “Vulnerable” upon learning about the limitations of Private Browsing.
Despite Private Browsing being one of the most commonly known and used privacy features, we find that most people misunderstand the privacy protections it provides.
Note however, that some browsers are changing their behaviour, for example Firefox which now includes tracking protection in private windows.
What is private browsing?
Web browsers can store data about users’ activities to make revisits easy.
How? When a browser caches web-based content like usernames, passwords, and images, this helps to speeds up the login process. That can be convenient for a user. But sometimes you might not want that convenience, if storing that data might compromise your privacy. For example, a web browser could sell user info to third-parties for marketing purposes.
Enter private browsing.
For example, Google’s Incognito mode wasn’t created to mask or hide your identity. It was primarily designed to make it easier to use shared computers.
Here’s how private browsing solved the problem. Multiple users meant many different cookies would be stored on a shared computer. That would create chaos when browsing, with information popping up that might be helpful to another user, but not to you.
When you use a private browser, all browsing history, search history, and cookies get automatically erased. A private browser also limits web tracking — meaning, websites have trouble keeping tabs on you. Some private browsers even help hide your location.
Is private browsing really private?
When you think of privacy, you likely see yourself searching the web in complete anonymity. But private browsing may not offer the complete mask of privacy you’re envisioning.
With private browsing, you can remain incognito on a work device, for instance, because your information won’t be stored on your computer. But your privacy ends there. Your employer, internet service provider, the websites you visited, and government agencies may still be privy to information including your browsing history, passwords and cookies.
Several browsers offer private browsing modes. Here’s a sample.
- Google Chrome offers Incognito Mode.
- Microsoft Internet Explorer and Edge offer an InPrivate Browsing mode.
- Mozilla Firefox has a Private Browsing mode.
- Opera has a Private Browsing mode.
- Safari offers a Private window.
- DuckDuckGo, a search engine, does not track or share your searches or log your personal information.
There’s more on those browsers to come.
How do private browsers work?
Private browsers allow you to keep your Internet activity hidden from others who use the same computer or devices. Not all privacy modes are the same, but most private browser settings won’t retain your cookies, browsing history, search records, or files you downloaded.
Still, the cookies used during private browsing sessions can provide information about your browsing behavior to third parties. This means your web activity can still be tracked.
Why browsing in an incognito mode isn’t truly private
Some web browsers that offer private browsing come with a statement that explains why using the feature may not guarantee complete privacy. The goal of private browsing is to prevent information from being automatically stored on your device, like browsing histories or downloaded cookies. Though in some instances, files that have been downloaded or bookmarked may still be saved. Then, the private browsing session expires only when the browser window is closed.
The issue remains: Your activity may still be visible to the Internet service provider, as well as to the organisation that provides the Internet connection, such as a school, college, or company. Also, the websites you visit may be able to view your session.
Is a private browser safe?
As with any other browsing session, private mode may provide an added layer of safety if your device is fortified with an up-to-date security suite and runs the latest operating system. If not? Cyber snoops or hackers may be able to view your session history.
The bottom line is that going private does not provide protection against cybercriminals gaining access to online tracks you may leave behind. Always be sure to install and use a robust security software on all of your devices before going online — private browsing or not.
Why go incognito while browsing?
There are a lot of good reasons to go incognito while browsing online, including these:
- Using multiple email accounts. You can open a tab in private mode and log into multiple email accounts without the hassle of logging off from one account and logging into another.
- Using a shared computer or a computer that’s not yours. Sometimes you’re away from your own device and have to use a Mac, PC, or another device that does not belong to you. A private browser should prevent your passwords, search history, and browsing history from being saved on that device.
- Shopping for gifts. Birthdays, holidays, or any occasion — if you’re shopping for a gift for someone on your shared computer, make sure you go private. The last thing you want is an overenthusiastic browser sharing your gift ideas and spoiling your surprise.
- Researching “delicate” topics. Sometimes you might need to research topics that you’d rather not have to enter into that search box. Researchers, writers, college students, and others may need to search for terms that are outside their comfort zone. A private browser may save some embarrassment or help protect confidential medical information.
- Booking travel online. Whether you’re looking for cheap airfares or hotel bookings, a private browser may help. With web tracking disabled, airlines and hotels can’t learn too much about your need or desperation to get desired dates and bookings. This may prevent them from altering fares based on your search history.
What’s the difference between a private browser and a secure browser?
A private browser prevents websites from installing cookies on your device. A secure browser makes it difficult for hackers to access your device.
A lot of secure browsers have been created in recent years. These claim to provide an additional layer of security that may not be found in a private browser.
Even so, most secure browsers are open source, and there’s no guarantee your browsing history will remain entirely private.
Private browser options
As noted, many web browsers offer their own version of “private” browsing. These so-called private browsers keep some — but likely not all — of your information private, and while many are similar, there may be differences in the protection they offer. Here are some examples:
Google Chrome Incognito Mode
Google Chrome’s Incognito Mode was designed to make it easier to share computers at places like the office. But enabling Incognito Mode doesn’t keep your identity private. For example, Chrome won’t save your browsing history, cookies, site data, or information you enter on forms, but it will retain files you download and your bookmarks. However, it won’t keep your browsing activity private from websites visited, your employer, schools or your Internet Service Provider.
Microsoft Internet Explorer and Edge InPrivate Mode
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Edge offer an InPrivate browsing window that provides the same features as others. It won’t save the pages you visit, form data, or web searches. However, it will retain the files you download and the bookmarks saved on your computer even after you close the InPrivate window. Microsoft’s browsers also will disable third-party toolbars you might have installed when you begin an InPrivate session.
Safari Private Browsing Window
Safari’s Private Browsing Window protects your temporary browsing data—your search history, form data and cookies—by wiping it by default when closed, just like the others. It also deletes temporary files when you close the window.
Opera Private Browsing Mode
While Opera offers many of the same privacy features as other browsers, one additional feature puts its private browsing mode a step above the rest. Opera lets you turn on a VPN connection that could add extra protection to your browsing activities. However, some might argue this is not a true VPN connection.
Mozilla Firefox Private Browsing Mode
This private browsing mode is similar to the others in most respects, but it does offer an additional feature in the form of tracking protection. With this feature enabled, Mozilla attemps to prevent sites from gathering your browsing history.
If you’re still worried about privacy, DuckDuckGo says that its search engine does not collect or share your searches or log your personal information. This lack of tracking also gives it bonus points for privacy.
Safety, privacy, or both?
It’s an easy choice. You probably want both online safety and privacy. A private browser likely can’t give you both. A secure browser may not be able to, either. What to do?
That’s where a virtual private network’s secured browsing comes in. A VPN can provide anonymity and security when you’re online, in part by hiding your IP address and encrypting your Internet traffic.
In short, it can do what you wish your private browser did.