Private Browsing Mode: Is It Really Private?

Private Browsing Mode: Is It Really Private?

Have you ever felt like you want more privacy when you search online and visit certain websites? You probably realize that you can use the private browsing mode that is available as an option on your internet browser. But have you ever wondered whether the private browsing mode, usually activated by clicking an icon of a cool-looking undercover agent with glasses and a hat, really offers you the privacy that you want? Although many of us have been using the private mode, there is still a lot of misunderstanding regarding what it does for our privacy.

If you frequently visit certain pages, your browser may automatically fill in the URL as soon as you start typing. If you read something useful but cannot remember where it was a day later, you can view your browsing history to look for it. You might also realize that your browser automatically fills in your password without you having to remember it. This is because your browser collects information about where we have been in the digital world and stores it on our devices. This information includes our browsing history, files we have downloaded, words we typed into search engines, data from internet cookies, and any account log-ins.

Private browsing mode makes all this information disappear as soon as we close the browser. There will be no record on our devices of where we have been and what words we put into search engines. Private browsing also will not recognize the websites we have visited before. Thus, it will not automatically fill in the URL as we start typing. The same goes with account log-in information. However, this does not mean that we can remain completely undercover while using the private browsing mode. Internet Service Providers (ISP), those that offer the internet (e.g. employers, schools, companies), the websites we visit, and national intelligence agencies can still know who we are and can still track us online.

Browsers usually inform users about the functions of its private browsing mode, but there are still people who use it with misconceptions. Here is an infographic comparing common myths with actual facts about the private browsing mode that might help us to understand its functions better.

Normally, our electronic devices need to know their IP address before they can connect to a website, and a website needs to know the IP address so they know where to send the data requested by the browser. This fact explains why your IP address is still visible when using the private browsing mode. In addition, when we connect to the internet through public Wi-Fi in an office, mall, airport, school, hotel or café, the network administrator is able to monitor the traffic. Public Wi-Fi can be a grave threat to our privacy, which we will explain later in another article. Its open nature allows hackers to get in between the device and the website or service we are connected to … and take the information.

A search engine’s results for websites that offer an IP address look-up service show how easy it is to identify someone’s geolocation from their IP address.
 

To sum up, private browsing means the browser will “forget” some kinds of information – but only on our device. It means:

  • The private browsing mode prevents the browser from recording a history of searches or websites we access on our device.
  • The browser will not save information such as cookies or content from websites.
  • The browser will not save and automatically fill in account log-in information on forms that we need to complete.

If the private browsing mode does not really protect our privacy, what are its benefits? Private browsing mode can still be useful on a work device, since the information will not be stored. The private browsing mode also offers the use of multiple email accounts at the same time, allowing you to log into one account without having to log out from another. In circumstances such as a case of domestic violence, victims can use the private browsing mode to hide their record of online activities.

In the environment of political repression, private mode can be useful to hide activities on your devices. If the device is confiscated, authorities will not be able to see where you have been online from your devices. However, they have more advanced techniques at their disposal to find such information, and the private mode cannot completely protect our privacy.

We have to remember how easy it is for ill-intentioned people to identify us from our IP address. In Southeast Asia, there has been little reporting about the technological techniques governments use to track human rights defenders, journalists, activists or those who are simply seen as a threat to the regime. With so many countries under repressive regimes, however, it can be crucial to have some knowledge and understanding of how our daily use of technology can affect us. Let’s not rely only on private browsing mode to protect ourselves. Our privacy can be enhanced by using the Tor browser, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), extensions, and encryption. Browser compartmentalization is also useful.

Learn how to shut off browser tracking in different browsers here.

Learn how to perform browser compartmentalization here.

This article is published under Creative Commons license CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0.

 

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