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.

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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.

The great thing is that most modern browsers allow users to enter a private browsing mode – whether it's Chrome's Incognito mode or Internet Explorer's InPrivate browsing. And 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.

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.

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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.

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This could be for any number of reasons; from visiting a site, the details of which you'd be embarrassed to share with others, or if you're looking for a present or planning a surprise, or if you'd simply like for your activity to be hidden from the user who uses the machine next – for example, in a public library. Using your browser's private browsing mode 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. We would not recommend logging into your bank account to make a transfer in public, but if you have no other choice and must reply to an urgent email, it's best to use a private browser – this might not eradicate all the risks but can reduce them.

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You can also use private browsing to log into multiple email accounts, social networks, or bank accounts at the same time, which might make work easier.

Private browsing can also help you eliminate targeted advertising, as programmatic adverts are unable to draw upon browser activity to direct content to a user.

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...

Just because it is “private”, does not mean that it is automatically safe. Whether checking your bank statement, shopping the latest sales, or signing up for a new video streaming service, remember that your personal and financial details are still just as likely to fall into the wrong hands as they are outside of “private mode”. In order to make sure that you are protected against data theft, use a trusted proxy server.

It's also important to note that it's still possible to see what you've been up to when using private mode. Even if your Google searches won’t be reflected in your History tab, your browsing activities will still be recorded by routers, firewalls, and proxy servers.

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