In-depth

What is private browsing and how can it keep you safe online?

Private-browsing capabilities are baked into the internet browsers you use everyday. Here's why it's important

Private files

Although they may bring about certain connotations, private web browsers are an incredibly useful tool for hiding your identity online and offering your browsing experience an additional layer of privacy. They do, indeed, have a handful of solid business uses, too.

Firstly, private web browsing can block attempts to track your activity online, and also offers you the tool to check how your website is ranking with certain keywords from an unbiased, fresh perspective. You can use private browsing to see how your web pages are doing as if you were a new user; it's a little-known fact that Google always lists your most-visited sites at the top of listings, for example.

This feature can also be used to see whether a website keeps showing you a cached web page, rather than the latest content. It can be verified by opening the web page in private browsing and comparing this with a web page in a regular window.

There's also the added element of privacy that private browsing inevitably provides. By default, private browsing does not record web history. From Chrome to Opera, most mainstream web browsers offer this tool - with slight differences in functionality if any, and varied branding such as Firefox's Private Browsing versus Microsoft Edge's InPrivate browsing.

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Thankfully most modern browsers can allow users to enter a private browsing mode - whether it's Chrome's Incognito mode or Internet Explorer's InPrivate browsing.

One of the advantages of using private browsing mode is that it's a whole lot easier to use compared to VPN, which usually insists you need to install a third party client or create an account to use the full features.

Furthermore, because it's a baked-in part of most browser software, you can freely activate it on public or shared computers in a library, airport or hotel, for example to prevent the next user from gathering information on you.

Private browsing isn't just about defending your personal life from intrusion, either. In business, it can be useful for carrying out research without your previous interests, searches and so on influencing the results you get. It also makes it harder for any third parties accessing a device after you've stopped using it to piece together information about you, your business, the IT services you use, et cetera.

Here we look into what private browsing is, why you might want to use it and how to enable it.

What is private browsing?

Private browsing allows you to hide your identity from the websites you're visiting. This means nothing will be recorded as you bounce around the web, including the IP address from which you're browsing from and any other details you may input into your browser. It means your searches also aren't recorded, so you won't see random adverts popping up as you navigate.

The level of protection you'll get will depend on the browser you're using to surf. Some offer tracking protection as well as standard browsing protection, meaning the websites you visit won't be able to install cookies on your machine or utilise any other kind of tracking activity to see where you've come from or where you go to net from their site. 

You can switch between 'normal' browsing mode and 'private' browsing mode in the majority of popular browsers, such as Firefox, Chrome, Edge, Safari and Opera, but what the private mode is called will vary from browser to browser. For example, on Edge, it's called InPrivate, Chrome it's Incognito and in both Firefox and Safari it's just referred to as a private window. They all have the same purpose, despite called different things.

You'll know whether you're using a private mode because either an icon will appear showing you're not being tracked (in Edge this shows a small blue label rather than the bolder indicators in Chrome and Safari), or the colour scheme of the tabs will change - usually darker.

Why use private browsing?

Browsing openly - without opting for any additional form of privacy - is a touch more useful by way of your browser being more disposed to saving sites you visit frequently, as well as your login details, browsing history and further details. This will inevitably make it easier to retrieve any such whenever you need them. But occasionally you'll want to keep information like this hidden, and not so readily available to other users, especially if you're using a shared computer. This could be for any number of reasons; from visiting a site the details of which you'd be embarrassed with others, or if you're looking for a present, or even planning a surprise. Using your browser's private browsing mode, in these instances will automatically remove all your information as soon as you decide to end your session - leaving no record for the next user to find accidentally or otherwise.

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Private browsing also comes in handy when using the internet to access your accounts in public spaces, such as a computer in a hotel lobby or library. While this always carries a certain amount of risk, private browsing can reduce it. If you have to check your email or sign into Facebook, it's still a good idea to use private browsing to make sure your activities vanish when you close the window and you don't remain logged in on a public computer. Just think of how many Facebook messages you've sent in the past that you wouldn't want the world to see!

There are many a multitude of reasons why you'd want to use private browsing mode; it's not just about being paranoid someone will see what you were doing online.

For one, you can use it to log into multiple email accounts, social networks, or bank accounts at the same time, which might make work easier.

Ever accessed a website for the first time and they try to sell you things based on your past buying history? This is because public browsing saves your search history in the form of cookies, so search engines you use such as Google can save data collected from users to make ads more personalised, and promotions to things you were looking at earlier. With private browsing, you can minimise the amount of targeted advertising you're exposed to.

Having the option to privately browse the web gives people the option to browse however they prefer, and having more control over your browsing is never a bad thing.

How to enable private browsing

These capabilities are built into everyday web browsers, including Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Apple's Safari, and Mozilla Firefox, which normally involves opening a new window in a mode that prevents data capture.

Depending on the browser you use, the private browsing tool will have a different moniker - Google Chrome has its 'Incognito' mode while Internet Explorer uses 'InPrivate'. Check out our how to enable private browsing mode guide to learn how to use the feature no matter what browser you are using.

Internet browsers are always looking to innovate and reshape private browsing, with many now offering a range of features for advanced users, while others look to bolster the additional layer of privacy this offers. Firefox, for instance, is designed to protect your browsing as far as possible - successfully blocking all tracking ads and invisible trackers when we tested its latest iteration. This is a feature Chrome and Microsoft Edge cannot yet offer. 

But be warned...

If you're concerned about who can see your online data, you should be aware that private browsing isn't entirely safe. Between internet shopping, online banking, and the rise of cloud computing, our personal and financial details are ripe for the picking if they fall into the wrong hands. But private browsing alone won't protect you against data theft; it's not like using a proxy.

It's still very possible to see what you've been doing even if you use private browsing all the time. Routers, firewalls, and proxy servers could be keeping tabs on your browsing activities, and private browsing mode won't get in the way of that.

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