Popular internet browsers allow users to browse and visit websites in private mode. And in many scenarios, the feature is helpful for users wanting to hide their identity. However, privacy experts warn that the “private” browsing options might not protect users as much as they think.
Privacy mode on browsers
Privacy mode has different names on different browsers – Private Browsing on Safari and Firefox, and Incognito mode on Google Chrome. However, the primary functions of them all are the same. These private modes don’t allow browsers to keep a log of visited sites, cached pages, or saved data like credit card details and addresses. In addition, it prevents the storage of information from browsing sessions in the cloud.
So, a privacy mode affords users a certain level of digital privacy and protection. However, it does not entirely prevent users from getting tracked. Albert Fox Cahn, Surveillance Technology Oversight Project’s founder and executive director, says, “We have to recognize that often simply toggling on a private mode does very little to prevent third-party tracking, especially law enforcement tracking.”
How does a privacy mode work
People usually set a privacy mode while browsing when sharing their devices with other users. It prevents others from viewing their web activity. However, it does not do more than that.
In addition, a privacy mode reduces tracking across websites. For instance, Chrome claims, “Websites see you as a new user and won’t know who you are, as long as you don’t sign in.”
However, users are still trackable through their IP addresses, even in privacy mode. In addition, an internet service provider can record users’ web activity even with the private browsing setting. So, browsers like Safari have the “Hide IP Address” option to protect users. It sends browser information to two different entities – one gets the IP address and the other the details of the website visited by the user. Besides that, users can also hide their IP addresses through VPN (virtual private network) extensions or “disable Geo IP” features.
What information is still tracked in privacy mode
Experts say online browsing data gets stored in two places – on the local computer and on visited sites. Therefore, although a privacy mode prevents data storage on a device, the site still records users’ activity.
Additionally, privacy mode doesn’t work on a company or school-owned laptop. Eric Rescorla, Mozilla CTO, says, “If you have a computer where somebody else is managing it, having privacy against that person is impossible. If an employer owns your computer, they can put any monitoring software on the computer they want and measure anything you do. So, no, it doesn’t protect you against that, but almost nothing would.” Parisa Tabriz, VP of Chrome Browser, warns that even Incognito Mode might not help in such cases.
Most notably, privacy mode protection is exclusive to web browsing. Thus, any web activity on smartphone apps is still trackable.
Extra steps users can take to protect themselves online
Users can also take extra steps to increase their digital privacy besides a privacy mode and additional privacy options.
For instance, they can use VPNs to hide their IP addresses, as discussed above, to remain anonymous while browsing. It will not only hide users’ identities but even their location. “A good first step would be to use a private browsing mode and a VPN together,” says Rescorla. However, the VPN operator can still access users’ web activity. Fox Cahn warns users that they might “sell that information” or hand it over to “the police if they provide a warrant.”
Additionally, users can use browsers like Tor for safe and secure browsing. Privacy experts claim that Tor allows users to surf the internet securely and anonymously, using multiple intermediary servers to prevent any single server from fully tracking activity.
No matter what browser setting users set, their online activity is never entirely private. Of course, clearing browsing history and emptying cookie caches makes it difficult for third parties to recover data. But, it is still possible with specific forensic tools and warrants.
So, Fox Cahn advises people who wish for utmost digital privacy to take every step possible to protect themselves, like buying a new untraceable device or using Tor. “It’s cumbersome, but that provides a lot more protection. You have to keep in mind that all these things do is reduce the amount of risk. None of them are perfect,” he says.