2018 has been a turbulent year in terms of data privacy. From the European Union enacting its General Data Protection Regulation to Cambridge Analytica’s clandestine mining of 80 million Facebook users’ data, it seems that online privacy is more relevant today than it has ever been.
Much of this fixation on data has come from the general population’s perceived lack of understanding of the way data is collected, stored and used online. Take, for example, the idea of “private” or “incognito” modes in our web browsers: it’s widely assumed that these little windows protect us while online, but can they really keep you safe from greedy online trackers? Can private browsing really hide your activity at work or protect you from online spying or data mining? How secure is it really?
Here are five facts you may find useful in your quest for truly private browsing.
1. Private mode wasn’t created to be fully private
When Google initially created Incognito Mode in 2008, they weren’t sure what to call it. Darin Fisher (one of the developers on the project) was against naming it “privacy mode”, as it wasn’t truly private. It was intended to enable people to hide their activities from their loved ones, particularly on shared computers.
Fisher notes that while Incognito does prevent browsing history and cookies from being saved, the product team felt it was important to “make it really clear to people that your activity is certainly still visible to the websites you visit and could be visible to your employer, to your school, and to your [internet service provider] of course”. That is, people’s browsers were still recording more than they might have thought.
2. Your browser still collects information
While using Incognito mode, your browser will still keep downloads and save bookmarks, and if you’re using a public Wi-Fi connection at work or in a cafe, a lot of your activity can still be tracked. If you’re using an unsecure non-https site, users on the same network can easily see your browsing history – if they want to.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also warn users that their browsing history often remains on a machine, even when using Incognito. Each time you visit a webpage, even in private mode, the data from the sites you’ve visited is loaded into the device’s RAM, displayed, and cached. If someone really wanted to, they could obtain this information.
3. There’s a difference between local and online privacy
When speaking of anonymous browsing, there are two types of privacy at play: local privacy and online privacy.
Local privacy refers to shared devices; people using the same computer as you can’t see your browsing history if you’re using Incognito Mode.
However, online privacy is not affected by Incognito Mode. Websites can still can track your location, onsite actions and behaviour, device and software information, and more. What’s more, if you’re logged into your Google account while in an incognito, all your search history will still be saved to the cloud.
4. But… private browsing still has its uses
It’s not all doom and gloom. You can still get something out of incognito mode if you’re trying to keep your browsing history secure from prying eyes. For example, it enables you to sign into your Google (or any other) account in one window, and log into a different account in another. With this method, you can browse in incognito mode while being logged into your secondary Google account, which will link your browsing history only to that secondary account.
Secondly, Incognito can be very if you want to see search results as Google intended them, unskewed by your own search history or account settings. Similarly, shopping in incognito mode will prevent you from being served retargeting banners and other dynamic ad units.
5. There are other ways to stay private
As we’ve seen, incognito mode basically just means that your browser doesn’t save local copies of cookies, temporary internet files or your browsing history (though these records will still exist on the servers you accessed). So, are there any better ways to protect your privacy? Yes!
VPNs – Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is usually the easiest and most effective way to browse the internet in privacy. A VPN masks your physical location and IP address, which prevents the website you’re visiting from being able to join the dots between its data and who you are or where you’re browsing from.
Secure Search Engines – Search engines such as DuckDuckGo don’t retain your search history.
Tor – If you really want to protect your online privacy, try Tor or switch to the Tor network. This is an open-source browser that is designed from the ground up to hide the identity of the user. It works in a similar manner to a VPN, but on a browser level.
Just being aware – Ghostery is a browser extension that shows you how you’re being tracked online, and by whom. It informs you which sites are collecting your data or browsing history in order to serve you targeted ads, and also (at the time of writing) blocks about 1,980 trackers.
To sum it up, incognito mode and other private browsing modes are useful and do provide web users with a real level of privacy protection with very little effort required. As long we’re aware of the level of real privacy these modes offer, and how to take full advantage of the other privacy tools out there, protecting our online activities from prying eyes is still achievable – which is especially important in today’s data climate.