But clicking the “private” browsing option might not protect you as much as you think, some privacy experts say.
These options have different names — Private Browsing in Safari and Firefox, and Incognito Mode in Chrome — but the functionality is similar between the two. In these private modes, the chosen browser does not keep logs of websites visited, pages cached, or stored information such as credit card numbers and addresses. It also prevents information from sessions from being stored in the cloud.
While using these options offers some level of online protection, privacy experts say they don’t prevent the user from being tracked altogether – potentially limiting the protections it can offer women in this new legal landscape.
“We need to recognize that simply switching to a private mode often does very little to prevent third-party tracking, and especially law enforcement tracking,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and Fellow at New York University Law School.
What does private browsing mode do?
Experts say private browsing modes work best, as designed, to protect your web activity from others using the same device, but it offers little more than that local protection.
“It can be helpful, for example, for transgender and queer children who are concerned about being stalked by their parents, and for people who may be in a situation where they cannot safely disconnect their computer from other people who can access browsing history,” says Fox Cahn.
Private mode can also help reduce tracking across websites. For example, on Chrome, users are told, “Sites see you as a new user and don’t know who you are until you sign in.”
“People choose to browse the web privately for many reasons,” says Parisa Tabriz, VP of Chrome Browser. “Some people want to protect their privacy on shared or borrowed devices, or block certain activities from their browsing history. Incognito helps with these use cases.”
When a person browses online, companies typically use tracking devices known as cookies to keep up with digital activity from one website to the next to provide more targeted advertising. Depending on browser and user choices, private browsing mode can reduce this cross-site information sharing. However, some browsers require users to know that they can select these additional options apart from simply opting for private mode.
For example, Safari has a standard Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature that limits cross-site tracking while websites continue to function normally. The options “Prevent cross-site tracking” and “Block all cookies”.
Private modes are also limited in their effectiveness when it comes to IP addresses that are tied to the device and can be used to geolocate the user.
“Whether you are in privacy mode or not, your IP address must always be known to the recipient because when your browser sends the request to retrieve data, the server receiving the request needs to know where to send that data back to . ‘ said Andrew Reifers, associate teaching professor at the University of Washington Information School. An internet service provider can also record a user’s online activities regardless of their browser’s privacy settings.
Some browsers offer additional protections to fix this. Safari has a separate Hide IP Address option from Private Browsing Mode that, when enabled, sends user browsing information to two different entities, one receiving the IP address but not the website visited, and the other receiving the website, but not the IP address. That way, neither of them has all the information about a user. Other browsers also have options for masking IP addresses, such as B. VPN extensions or “disable geo-IP” features that prevent browsers from sharing a user’s location with websites.
What do private browsing modes not protect?
Browsing the Internet is saved in two places: on the local computer and from the websites visited. For example, if a user goes to Facebook in private browsing mode, that visit will not be saved on their device, but a record of that visit will be saved in their Facebook account records and Facebook’s ad analytics.
The records users leave online, with or without enabling private browsing options, create great uncertainty as to how this data could be used as evidence by law enforcement in states that criminalize abortion. Tech companies have said little about how they would handle such requests. Digital rights and reproductive freedoms groups are now warning people in these states to protect their digital footprints when searching for abortion information and resources online, and offering tips on how to do so.
Also, if someone is working on a company or school laptop, private browsing mode isn’t going to do much. “If you have a computer that someone else is managing it on, it’s not really possible to have privacy from that person,” said Eric Rescorla, CTO at Mozilla. “If an employer owns your computer, they can install any type of monitoring software they want on the computer and they can measure everything you do. So, no, it doesn’t protect you from 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 strictly for web browsing and all activities on smartphone apps are vulnerable. No matter how well private browsing mode works to protect user activity, it can’t help anywhere else. “Many of the applications we use don’t have an integrated incognito mode,” says Reifers. “You don’t really know what this application saves.”
What additional steps can you take to protect yourself online?
Aside from enabling private browsing modes and choosing the additional privacy options offered by companies in their settings, there are some additional steps users can take to try to maximize digital privacy.
A VPN, or virtual private network, hides an IP address to make a user more anonymous online and to effectively protect who and where a user is. “A good first step would be to use a private browsing mode and a VPN together,” Rescorla said.
However, using a VPN may allow the VPN operator to gain access to your browsing activity. “Many of them will sell this information or, in any case, make it available to the police when they present a warrant,” Fox Cahn warns.
According to privacy experts, internet users can also consider a browser like Tor, a secure and anonymous option that uses multiple intermediary servers to prevent a single server from fully tracking activity.
Above all, experts emphasize that Internet users should be aware that online activities are fundamentally not private, regardless of browser settings. And while clearing browsing history and cookie caches make data recovery difficult for third parties, it’s still not impossible with certain forensic tools and warrants.
Fox Cahn emphasizes that those concerned with privacy, like abortion seekers, should take as many steps as possible, even buying a new device that is untraceable or using services like Tor. “It’s cumbersome, but that offers a lot more protection,” he said. “You have to keep in mind that all of these things can reduce risk. None of them are absolutely perfect.”