What is Private Browsing Mode?
How private is your browsing history? Can you see it? Can Google see it? What about your internet service provider (ISP) or your government? The sad truth is that all of them can see it.
All popular internet browsers have a private browsing mode. But what does it really do? And does it mean you are completely anonymous online? Before you open an incognito window, you should learn what it can and can’t do.
Summary: Private browsing mode offers some additional privacy, but it’s not perfect. For instance, when you use Google Chrome Incognito Mode, your browsing history isn’t stored on your device and (tracking) cookies are deleted when you close the browser. So your device remains “clean.” But your browser provider (e.g. Google), the owner of your WiFi connection (e.g. employer) and your ISP can still see what you do online.
Why Use Private Browsing?
Besides heightened security and privacy, there are other valid reasons to surf the internet privately. Websites find it more difficult to track you as you open a new private window. Private browsing modes disable tracking cookies and services, preventing site data collection.
For example, if you’re browsing for a new gaming controller, tracking cookies and services will notice you visited Amazon pages and controller reviews. As a result, you might receive ads for similar devices. However, a private browsing window is perfect for keeping that under the radar. This can be useful if you have already made a purchase and don’t want to receive ads after the fact.
Web tracking is how Google and many other companies try to build profiles on you and other users. Browsing privately isn’t the silver bullet to staying secretive, but it’s a step in the right direction.
When using a private browsing window, you can log into multiple accounts of the same website at once, such as Facebook. Websites usually don’t let people do that on a standard tab or window, and the other solution is opening another Facebook account using a different browser.
Private browsing mode will make only one browser necessary, saving time. That’s a highly convenient feature that happens to keep you safer simultaneously.
How to Open a New Private Window
Private windows are the primary method of staying safe on the Internet for people who don’t need advanced security features such as those of VPNs. Each browser has a different name for its private browsing windows.
On Internet Explorer, you have the InPrivate window. Google Chrome calls private browsing mode Incognito mode. No matter the name, they all fulfill a similar purpose.
Below, you can find instructions on accessing them with your favorite browser. We’ll include some of the most popular choices.
Google Chrome is currently the most-used browser on the planet. While it has some privacy concerns, Chrome is still one of the fastest browsers with a lot of customization and accessibility options. Its features are why people still use it today.
You can open an Incognito window by pressing Ctrl + Shift + N on Windows. Mac users should use Command + Shift + N instead. This handy keyboard shortcut is instant and lets you take advantage of Incognito mode in seconds.
The other method is as follows:
Open Chrome on your computer.
Click on the triple vertical dots icon in the top right corner.
Select “New Incognito Window” from the list.
The Incognito mode for Chrome has a dark background and a cartoony “shady detective” or “spy” icon under the search bar. Google Chrome also reminds you of what every Incognito window protects you against and what may still be visible.
The Android and iOS versions of Google Chrome don’t have the New Incognito Window option, but it lets you open Incognito windows in the form of tabs.
Open Google Chrome on your mobile device.
Tap on the three vertical dots icon.
Select “New Incognito Tab.”
Incognito mode is subject to some controversy, but it doesn’t track your search history on the browser itself. Therefore, there’s still merit to using Incognito mode regardless of location.
While Internet Explorer has halted development for a while, some users are still browsing the internet with it. Its InPrivate window mode is the equivalent of Google Chrome’s Incognito mode. In this dedicated private browser window, internet history and cookies won’t be recorded. Here’s what you need to do:
Open Internet Explorer.
Click on “Safety.”
Select “InPrivate Browsing.”
The keyboard shortcut to open a new InPrivate window is Ctrl + Shift + P. You’ll find these tips helpful if you’re one of the few people who use this old browser.
You can open a Firefox private window by following the instructions below:
Launch Mozilla Firefox on your computer.
Click on the Firefox menu in the upper-right corner.
Select “New Private Window.”
Pressing Ctrl + Shift + P can also open a new private Firefox window. The Mac keyboard shortcut for this is Command + Shift + P.
Android users only have to tap the mask icon when they launch Firefox. iPhone owners have a slightly different process:
Open Firefox on your iPhone.
Tap on the tab icon.
Select the mask icon.
Touch the plus sign.
Mobile users don’t need to open the Firefox menu, as the mask icon handles everything for you. These private browsing sessions help hide browsing activity.
Currently, every Windows computer comes with Microsoft Edge as its default browser. Edge is a direct competitor to Chrome, both being based on the Chromium open-source project. As with its counterparts, Edge has a private browsing mode.
As it’s the replacement for Internet Explorer, Microsoft Edge also has InPrivate windows. Here are the instructions for opening them:
Click on the three dots in the upper right corner.
Select “New InPrivate window” from the drop-down menu.
You can also right-click any link and select the “Open Link In InPrivate Window” option. This is a quick alternative method that brings up a new InPrivate window.
Microsoft Edge for Android has a similar function, but they’re tabs instead. Try the steps on your mobile device.
Open Microsoft Edge on your mobile device.
Select the “Tabs” icon.
Switch to “InPrivate.”
Tap on the plus sign to open a new InPrivate tab.
Microsoft Edge is available on all PCs unless uninstalled, so users should know how to access a private browsing session on this browser. That way, they’re less vulnerable to trackers and cookies.
Safari is the Apple equivalent of Microsoft Edge, as the app is on all Macs and iPhones. Safari’s private browsing mode is named Private Browsing, letting Apple users access the web privately. Mac users can look at these steps and open a private browser window.
Open Safari on your Mac.
Go to “New Private Window.”
You can now browse privately.
It’s possible to change the app’s startup settings and guarantee a private session. The process is straightforward:
In Safari, go to the “Preferences” tab.
Bring up the “Safari Opens With” menu.
Click on “A New Private Window.”
Mobile users will need to follow these instructions:
Go to Safari on your mobile device.
Tap on the “Tabs” icon.
Tap on the number to bring up the Tabs Group.
Select “Private” and “Done.”
Safari changes its address bar’s color from white or gray to black. Sometimes, the bar is gray, depending on your iPhone or iPad.
Who Tracks Internet Users?
It’s not only browsers that track your normal browsing history and activity. You might be surprised to know who has access to this information. Most people and organizations who can track your activity aren’t malicious, but it’s good to know about these data collectors.
Internet Service Provider
Your ISP provides access to the web but saves your data as you fill out forms or make purchases. ISPs know your email address and the websites you visited. The former information is independent of your browser’s history.
Anyone who works in a larger office with a centralized LAN will likely be in contact with the network administrator. This person is responsible of maintaining the local internet connection and private servers (if they exist), and can provide related IT services. They have admin privileges and can look at unsecured connections.
Admins can’t see what you fill in forms when visiting HTTPS pages. However, they can still track you if they want.
Search engines like Google and Bing collect data, especially if Smart Search or similar functions are enabled. They have your history, too, unless you’re in private mode. Some search engines don’t collect data or offer ways to disable tracking.
Governments may ask ISPs to hand over a person’s browsing history if necessary. They may do so to combat cybercrime, but some people aren’t fans of this protection. They prefer keeping themselves safe instead.
Hackers who manage to gain access to a computer can find out everything you typed on the device, including searches and passwords. Even so, it depends on how they attack the system.
Can Browsing Be Completely Private?
Nothing on the internet is 100% foolproof, but there are ways people can strive for complete anonymity online. It’s best to use a totally anonymous app like TOR, which keeps users indistinguishable from one another. Because everyone is masked, finding out exact identities is much more challenging.
You can also switch to a search engine like DuckDuckGo, which tracks practically nothing about its users. It will block third-party cookies and enact anti-tracking measures.
A virtual private network, or VPN, masks users’ actual geographical locations. After connecting to the network, other sites may assume you’re from the United States when you’re in a Japanese internet café.
However, VPN providers may be ordered to hand over information to government authorities. Browsers and search engines aren’t entirely breach-free too. It’s best to adopt the mindset of constant vigilance.
While staying completely safe on the internet is impossible, many excellent ways exist. Private browsing will prevent many other parties from tracking you. However, you should still consider other products as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
What's the difference between private browsing and anonymous browsing?
Private browsing doesn’t hide your IP address or prevent ISPs and others from viewing your history. Anonymous browsing will hide all of the above.
When should you use private browsing?
It’s best to use it when trying to hide web searches, login information, and transactions. If something has heightened risk, you may elect to turn it on.
Does private browsing protect you from viruses?
If there is already malware in your PC system, it can track your activities even if you’re using private browsing or similar privacy solutions. You need an antivirus to get rid of these threats.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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