Article Thumbnail

Does Private Browsing Do Anything Besides Hide My Search History?

You don't want to know the answer

Many of us turn on private browsing before engaging in profoundly important, highly classified research. As one would, we assume that private browsing allows us to browse in private, concealing our searches from the endless annals of cyberspace. But as it turns out, nothing is private on the internet, and my dog was the one who Googled “boobs,” I swear.

“Private browsing isn’t true privacy,” says computer security blogger Graham Cluley. “It just stops your computer from keeping a record of what websites you’re visiting. Your web surfing is still visible to the websites you’re visiting, your internet service provider and your employer. If a hacker has compromised your computer, then it’s also possible for them to see what you’re doing, even if you’re in ‘incognito’ or private browsing mode.”

Please excuse me while I drop the whole damn internet into the Mariana Trench.

There are, at least, some other ways to increase your privacy while engaging in profoundly important, highly classified research. For example, some search engines are more private than others. “I often recommend DuckDuckGo and use this myself, as it’s a good search engine that protects the users’ privacy, encrypts traffic and doesn’t filter personal search results,” explains cybersecurity expert Scott Schober, author of Cybersecurity Is Everybody’s Business. “They also block most of the unwanted web trackers.”

You could also use Tor Browser, an entire browser that increases anonymity by making all of its users look the same. This makes it extremely challenging for someone or something to “fingerprint” you based on your browser and device information. Keep in mind, though, that browsing on Tor can be frustratingly slow.

Using a VPN (virtual private network) — an app that hypothetically obscures your location, identity and IP address from the rest of the internet — is another option, and one that you can use on top of Tor. “If you use your own device and use a VPN service to protect your privacy, your employer will likely be able to see that you used a VPN, but is unlikely to see more about what you were doing,” explains cybersecurity advisor Joseph Steinberg, author of Cybersecurity for Dummies. “Of course, the VPN provider may be able to see more about your actions, but many such providers don’t store such data.”

If you really want anonymity on the internet, my experts suggest you use a combination of all of these things: Private search engines, private browsers like Tor and a VPN. Even then, though, they say you should always assume that pretty much everything is public on the internet.

Mariana Trench, here I come.