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 p**n 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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 23 Mar 2009
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Private Browsing (Posted: 23 Mar 2009)
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Most recent comments on "Private Browsing"(See all 21 comments for this article.)
25 Mar 2009
Ixquick Metasearch offers a private browsing experience, in that, it does all of the above, but now, also does not store your IP address.
25 Mar 2009
You can also clear your browsing history in the latest copy of Firefox (Version 3.0.7) by going to Tools & then selecting Clear Private Data.
EDITOR'S NOTE: That works, but will clear ALL data for ALL sites. You probably don't want to lose all your cookies and form inputs. And does it also clear the cache?
Jorge, from Chile
25 Mar 2009
Are the pages "privately" visited full operational, despite of "no cookies" mode??
26 Mar 2009
Two clicks and Opera gives you a clean dialog screen to choose which private data to delete (Tools/Delete Private Data).
EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, but it deletes ALL data from ALL sites, right? Private browsing lets you block the logging for one (or selected) sites.
26 Mar 2009
Internet comments on Browzar have been very negative.
26 Mar 2009
Bob, for years I have set my IE browser to 0 for the History. I learned a long time ago, that I really didn't need to have a History available and that way no one knows where I have been. Setting the History to 0 means that when you close your browser, nothing is logged.
This way, I can still keep my 'cookies' that I want for those sessions, that I frequent. I prefer to have 'control' over what happens on my computer. I use CCleaner to clean out my Internet travels, as well as other things that CCleaner does. What I like about all of this, is that I decide when to do what, not some program.
I also, only use my computer for home purposes, email, paying bills online, surfing the Internet and downloading purchased games or playing on one of my gaming communities. My PC is not a home office computer or a corporate computer. I think, that makes a big difference in how you approach this issue.
26 Mar 2009
For a while I used ForceField from Zone Labs, but I think there were conflicts with other programs, and it seemed to slow everything down so much that I ditched it.
01 Apr 2009
I have the Firefox portable app. Isn't that like private browsing?
EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, it seems pretty much the same, since it runs in a sandbox environment. I think all the bookmarks, cookies, etc., disappear when you close the app, right?
02 Apr 2009
Yes the cookies and bookmarks all go away. The only cookies left are from my Explorer that I use on rare occasions.
ToConcerned Business Owner
12 Apr 2009
How do I keep programs such as this off of my networked computers in the office.
EDITOR'S NOTE: You mean browsers?? That would be odd...
22 Apr 2009
I want to know how to turn off the In-Private Browsing, I have other people here and I would like to know what they do on my computer.
EDITOR'S NOTE: If you have opened a tab or window in Private mode, just close the tab or window to turn off InPrivate browsing. If you want to prevent people from using it, Vista allows that. Inprivate Browsing cannot be enabled in a Standard user account with Parental Controls enabled for it.
10 May 2009
Uhm, I use MSIE6.02, Bob. What's available for me by way of Private Browsing, besides nuttin'???
15 Jun 2009
I switched from Google to ixquick (www.ixquick.com) because it does not record my IP address. First search engine to comply with strict EU laws and regulations on data security and privacy. I still use IE7 tools to delete my history, etc., files at the end of my sessions.
16 Aug 2010
Thank you Bob for the information. I had a hard time searching for relevant info on private browsing. And I found whatever I was looking for here.
09 Nov 2010
I was wondering if there is a way to further delete any type of internet browsing history on my computer other than the obvious way through internet options. I know that that is not the only way to delete them because my boyfriend found stuff that I had deleted haha. I was wondering what other step I can take to completley delete my browsing history and if you do not know, then maybe you can just tell me how my boyfriend found stuff that I deleted lol it was kind of embarassing haha. Ok well thank you. I have never seen this site before but I hope this works. Thanks!
25 Nov 2010
If i were to go on a website would the modem attached to my parents comp register my history if i was browsing in incognito mode for google chrome? Thanks
08 Mar 2013
I have used Chrome Incognito a few times. A few weeks ago, I got a text messaage on my iPhone from one of the sites I had visited (several days before)telling me I had been selected for blahblah. How did they get my phone number? Since my cell number is nowhere on my computer - not even Facebook - I can only conclude that my phone was charging (USB) at the time of my visit, and my total machine was being looked at while I was browsing.
24 Nov 2013
I need help w private browsing using safari on iPad w yahoo... Have no toolbar- & can't get my email!
17 May 2014
I agree. Did you also know by using a VPN Service your ISP wont even know what you are doing online. Find the best ones at http://thebestproxyserver.com/hide-my-ass-vpn-review/
22 Jun 2014
Bob, Is there any way to recover the "private" browsing history from an iPad or iPhone?
EDITOR'S NOTE: As far as I know, in private browsing mode, no history is stored, so it can't be recovered.