Private Browsing Isn’t So Private
Surprisingly, despite the names the Big Three browsers give to private browsing modes – Internet Explorer’s In-private Browsing mode, Google’s Incognito mode and Firefox’s Private Browsing mode – there’s really not much private about private browsing. Every site you visit is tracked by your ISP regardless of whether you’re using a private mode, and your browser, even in its private mode is broadcasting your IP address (and thus your location) and your browser type, operating system and other information to every Web site you visit. The only thing that really separates a browser’s private mode from its normal mode is that your browsing history and cookies are not saved to your computer. This is true only if you don’t have extensions enabled in private modes.
Many extensions, track your browsing history and store it somewhere on your computer as well as on connected servers on the Internet. So, browsing in private mode with a lot of add-ons or extension may defeat any privacy gained by using a private browsing mode in any one of the major browsers. Fortunately, Internet Explorer and Chrome both disable browser extensions by default in their private modes; Firefox, however, does not, and this provides the vehicle for private information to be leaked.
If you really want to be private (anonymous) on the Internet, don’t rely on a browser’s private mode. Google warns users of its Incognito mode that:
You’ve gone incognito. Pages you view in this window won’t appear in your browser history or search history, and they won’t leave other traces, like cookies, on your computer after you close all open incognito windows. Any files you download or bookmarks you create will be preserved, however.
- Going incognito doesn’t affect the behavior of other people, servers, or software. Be wary of:
- .Websites that collect or share information about you
- Internet service providers or employers that track the pages you visit
- Malicious software that tracks your keystrokes in exchange for free smileys
- Surveillance by secret agents
- People standing behind you
Because Google Chrome does not control how extensions handle your personal data, all extensions have been disabled for incognito windows. You can re-enable them individually in the extensions manager.
Internet Explorer says this about its In-Private browsing feature:
InPrivate Browsing can help keep your browsing history private on shared computers such as at home, or in an Internet café or public kiosk. History data that is accumulated while browsing the web in an Internet Explorer InPrivate window, such as temporary Internet files, web address history, or cookies, will be removed when you close the window. History in other Internet Explorer windows (not using InPrivate), will not be affected.
The InPrivate Browsing experience prevents local storage on your computer of the following:
New cookies are not stored
New history entries will not be recorded
New temporary Internet files will be deleted after the InPrivate Browsing window is closed
Form data is not stored
Entered passwords are not stored
Addresses typed into the Address bar are not stored
Queries entered into the search box are not stored
InPrivate Browsing is not designed to obscure your identity to your internet provider or web servers on the Internet. It does not prevent data, such as your IP address, from being sent to websites you visit.
It’s easy to see that private browsing really isn’t very private. But it doesn’t seem that many are interested in private browsing, and maybe that’s a good thing, because really it’s more of a false sense of security than a way to protect your privacy.
Research by Stanford University to investigate the privacy of the “private browsing” feature of popular Web browsers found that the tools aren’t very private after all, and that many kinds of information can be leaked by browsers when using the mode.
The use of private browsing also varied wildly between browsers. Internet Explorer users barely bothered—just 2 percent of them use it, even for X-rated sites—whereas some 14 percent of Safari users prefer to keep their dirty/gift-buying habits to themselves. (Safari, once available to Windows users is now — basically — an Apple OS browser.)
It seems that private browsing modes are basically there because as the name “private browsing” seems to suggest it will increase the privacy of its users, but it doesn’t. It’s something akin to security programs finding 66 items during a scan, and then learning that all 66 are tracking cookies. Those 66 “tracking cookies” were never a threat to the user’s privacy in the first place.
About the only thing Private Browsing is good for is that your browsing history and other cached items, like cookies, are not saved, thus less clean-up. As far as privacy goes, it really does nothing.
So, whether you use your browser’s private mode or not, at least you now know what it does and what it does not do. It does not do as its name suggests — it does not obfuscate your identity on the Internet. So now that you know, if privacy is important to you, you’ll have to find a different way to protect your privacy on the Web. There are ways to protect your privacy, like Virtual Private Networks — but those are really more geared toward advanced users who understand the concept of VPN and tunneling. For most of you VPNs are not necessary.