Most web browsers now have a 'private browsing' mode which is supposed to eliminate your tracks while surfing the web. How well does this work in practice, and which browsers support the private browsing feature? Read on to find out...
What is Private Browsing?
Private browsing is a web browser mode that will prevent your computer from keeping track of the web pages you visit. In a nutshell, you're browsing the web without leaving a trace of your online activity.
In slightly more technical terms, private browsing will turn off your browsing history, and prevent your searches and downloads from being logged. It will not store any web form data you enter, won't remember passwords, and won't create any cookies.
Why Use Private Browsing?
There are many reasons why you would want to use a private browsing mode when working online. Most people assume that the main reasons for private browsing are to view porn or cheat on your spouse. But there are other reasons why you might want your web activity to remain anonymous.
For example, you may share a computer with other people in an office, library, classroom or other public place. You may be conducting research about a medical condition, or working on something that's confidential in nature. You could even be planning a vacation or a surprise for a loved one who shares your computer. All of these are good reasons for using the private browsing mode on your web browser.
But there are some differences in how the major browsers implement private browsing, and how much third party protection you receive, so it's important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each program's private browsing capabilities before you use them.
Private Browsing in Internet Explorer
As far as Internet Explorer (IE) goes version 8 is the first version that has an official private browsing mode. It's called "InPrivate Browsing." To turn on InPrivate Browsing you have two options. The easiest is to press Ctrl+Shift+P, but that might be hard to remember. On IE8 you can turn it on by opening a new tab and clicking "Browse with InPrivate" or by using the "Safety" button found in the top right hand corner of your IE window. For IE9 or IE10, click the little gear at the top right of the IE windows, click Safety, then click InPrivate Browsing.
By default, IE will disable toolbars, plugins and other browser extensions while using InPrivate mode, because IE cannot control what those addons do with browsing data. You can turn them back on, but with the caveat that they may end up "leaking" data about your session.
If you're still using Internet Explorer 7, there isn't a built-in tool for private browsing. However, you can use a free add-on program called Browzar which will help you keep your online activity hidden and anonymous.
Private Browsing in Mozilla Firefox
Firefox began offering a private browsing mode, starting with Version 3.1. To activate this browser's private mode, you can press Ctrl+Shift+P, just like in IE. You can also click the Firefox button, then click "Start Private Browsing". When you click on this option it will open a new window, and hide any currently open non-private windows or tabs. You have a few options when it comes to private browsing in Firefox. For example, you can open private browsing in a new window, you can initiate it by changing the status of your current Firefox instance or you can start a new Firefox instance in the private browsing mode. From that point on Firefox will stop recording your web history. When you exit Private Browsing mode, any hidden non-private windows or tabs will reappear.
Private Browsing in Google's Chrome Browser
Google's Chrome browser offers a private browsing feature called "Incognito Mode." To activate this mode, use Ctrl+Shift+N, or click on the Options icon at the upper right of the Chrome window, and then click on "New Incognito Window." (This icon may appear as a wrench in some versions of Chrome).
You can also start a private browsing session by simply right clicking on a link and selecting "Open Link in Incognito Window." You should also be aware that Chrome does not hide any non-private sessions, so you can switch between private and non-private tabs, and possibly forget that the non-private session is recording your activity.
Private Browsing in Safari
If you're a Mac user then Safari is probably your browser of choice. Fortunately, this browser has a great private browsing tool built in. To activate the private browsing mode all you have to do is click on "Safari" and then select "Private Browsing." From then on, Safari won't record information about your browsing activities, it won't record information that you enter into forms and it won't record your searches.
Is Private Browsing REALLY Private?
Sort of. Private browsing WILL prevent your own computer from logging your online activity. But it doesn't guarantee that there will be no trace of your web surfing logged elsewhere. Depending on your ISP, and your country of origin, some aspects of your online activity may still be visible to certain third parties, your ISP, and the government.
It's a universally accepted part of Internet protocol that web servers keep a log of each visitor, which details the date, time, your IP address, and the pages that you visit on that site. This information cannot be used to personally identify you, unless you provide that information by filling out a form on the website with your name, email or home address. See Does IP Address Reveal My Location? for related information.
It's also true that most ISPs keep a log of all the pages visited by their customers. Of course, your ISP does know who you are and where you live, but they won't release your online history unless required by law enforcement. But in some countries, the government may require that ISPs provide them with open access to online activity logs. I'd like to say that this only happens in China and other totalitarian regimes, but we really can't be sure of that.
One final note on the privacy of private browsing, for those who have a Google Account such as Gmail, Google Docs, Picasa, Webmaster Tools, Adwords or Adsense. If you're logged into your Google Account, Google also keeps a recorded history of your web surfing. You can pause or delete your Google Web History by accessing your "My Account" page. Have a look at my Search Privacy article to better understand who might be watching while you're surfing.
Do you use Private Browsing? Post your comments and questions below...
Posted by Bob Rankin on 23 Mar 2009
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Private Browsing (Posted: 23 Mar 2009)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved