Private browsing may not protect you as much as you think

But clicking the “private” browsing option might not protect you as much as you think, according to some privacy experts.

These options have different names – private browsing on Safari and Firefox, and private browsing mode on Chrome – but the functionality is similar on each. In these private modes, the chosen browser does not keep a log of sites visited, cached pages, or saved information such as credit card numbers and addresses. It also prevents session information from being stored in the cloud.

While using these options adds some level of online protection, privacy experts say it doesn’t completely prevent the user from being tracked, potentially limiting the protections you can get. she can offer women in this new legal landscape.

“We have to recognize that often simply toggling private mode does very little to prevent third-party tracking and especially law enforcement tracking,” said Albert Fox Cahn, Founder and Chief Executive Officer. of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and a member of the New York University School of Law.

What is private browser mode for?

According to experts, private browsing modes are best suited to protect your web activity from others using the same device, but they do little more than offer that local shield.

“This can be useful, for example, for trans and gay children who fear being tracked by their parents and for people who may find themselves in a situation where they cannot safely separate their computer from other people who may access browser history.”, explains Fox Cahn.

Private mode can also help reduce tracking on websites. On Chrome, for example, users are told, “Websites see you as a new user and won’t know who you are until you log in.”

“People choose to browse the web privately for many reasons,” said Parisa Tabriz, vice president of Chrome Browser. “Some people want to protect their privacy on shared or borrowed devices, or exclude certain activity from their browsing histories. Incognito helps with these use cases.”

Usually, when someone is browsing online, companies use tracking devices called cookies to track digital activity from site to site for more targeted advertising. Depending on the browser and the user’s choices, private browsing mode may reduce this sharing of information between sites. But with some browsers, users need to know how to select these additional options, beyond simply choosing private mode.

Safari, for example, has a default Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature, which limits cross-site tracking while allowing sites to continue to function normally. Its “Prevent cross-site tracking” and “Block all cookies” options are additional steps to protect users, but these features are separate from private mode. Chrome, on the other hand, informs users that they must choose to block third-party cookies, even in incognito mode. Firefox added new features by default last year, including “full cookie protection” to prevent users from being tracked across the Internet, as well as “smart blocking” to allow third-party logins through sites like Facebook or Twitter while still preventing tracking.

Private modes are also limited in their effectiveness with respect to IP addresses, which are tied to the device and can be used to geolocate the user.

“Whether you’re in private mode or not, your IP address should always be known to the recipient because when your browser sends the request for data, the server that receives the request needs to know where to send that data back,” Andrew Reifers said. , associate professor at the University of Washington Information School. An internet service provider may also log a user’s online activity, regardless of their browser’s privacy setting.

Some browsers offer additional protections to solve this problem. Safari has a separate “Hide IP address” selection from incognito mode which, when enabled, sends the user’s browser information to two different entities, one obtaining the IP address but not the website visited and the other getting the website but not the IP address. This way, neither has all the information about a user. Other browsers also have options for hiding IP addresses, such as VPN extensions or “disable Geo IP” features that prevent browsers from sharing a user’s location with websites.

What do private browser modes not protect?

Online browsing is stored in two places: on the local computer and by visited sites. When a user in incognito mode visits Facebook, for example, there will not be a stored record of that visit on their device, but there will be a stored record of that visit in their account records Facebook and Facebook advertising analytics.

The records users leave online, with or without private browsing options enabled, create great uncertainty about how that data could be used as evidence by law enforcement in states that criminalize abortions. Tech companies have said little about how they would handle these requests. Groups promoting digital rights and reproductive freedoms are now warning people in these states to protect their digital footprint when seeking abortion information and resources online, and sharing tips on how to do so.

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Also, if someone is working on a corporate or school-owned laptop, private browsing mode won’t do much. “If you have a computer where someone else is managing it, there’s really no way to have privacy against that person,” said Eric Rescorla, CTO at Mozilla. “If an employer owns your computer, they can install any kind of monitoring software on the computer they want and they can measure everything you do. So, no, it doesn’t protect you against that. , but almost nothing would.”

Google Chrome also warns users that incognito mode cannot provide full protection in these cases. “In incognito mode, your activity may still be visible to websites you visit, your employer or school, or your internet service provider. We make this clear when opening incognito mode,” Tabriz said. .

Users should also keep in mind that the protections offered in private mode are exclusive to web browsing, leaving any activity on smartphone apps vulnerable. No matter how well private browsing mode works to protect user activity, it can’t help anywhere else. “A lot of the apps we use don’t have incognito mode built in,” Reifers said. “You don’t really know what this app stores.”

What additional steps can you take to protect yourself online?

Beyond enabling private browsing modes and selecting additional privacy options offered by companies in their settings, users can take some additional steps to try to maximize digital privacy,

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, conceals an IP address to make a user more anonymous online, effectively protecting both who and where a user is. “A good first step would be to use an incognito mode and a VPN together,” Rescorla said.

But using a VPN potentially gives the VPN operator access to your browsing activity. “Many of them will sell this information or certainly make it available to the police if they provide a warrant,” Fox Cahn warns.

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Internet users may also consider turning to a browser like Tor, a secure and anonymous option that uses multiple intermediary servers to prevent a single server from tracking activity entirely, according to privacy experts.

Importantly, experts point out that Internet users should be aware that online activity is fundamentally not private, regardless of browser setting. And while clearing browsing history and clearing cookie caches make data recovery more difficult for third parties, it’s still not impossible with certain forensic tools and warrants.

Fox Cahn points out that people concerned with data privacy like abortion seekers should take as many steps as possible, even buying a new device that isn’t trackable or using services like Tor. “It’s heavy, but it offers a lot more protection,” he said. “You have to keep in mind that all of these things can reduce the risk. None of them are absolutely perfect.”

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