How to enable private browsing on any device: iPhone, Android or Windows

Want to know how to surf the web privately on Windows, Mac, iOS or Android devices? Here's our private browsing guide

A search bar on a blue background

Nowadays, more and more people are becoming conscious about their online privacy and are adopting private web browsers to help them keep their online identity anonymous. That's hardly surprising when you consider how much data is tracked when you surf the web; websites can keep track of what you're searching and your browsing history, along with details such as your operating system, installed plug-ins and location. 

While being tracked online has its benefits - it means websites scale properly to the device that we're using, and that we're shown adverts relevant to our interests - it also means we're giving away huge amounts of data to our internet service providers (ISPs) and website owners. Thankfully, if you're concerned about the amount of data being shared with third parties, you can prevent your browser logging this activity.

The easiest way to stop your activities being tracked is by using private browsing on your device. First introduced in 2005, this is a feature that's now widely-available and can be used on pretty much all devices including smartphones, laptops, tablets and desktop PCs. Using a private browser keeps your browsing history and data hidden from view and when you close the window, what you've been searching Google or viewing is deleted.

Based on what operating system (OS) your device uses, you can activate privacy capabilities through the default web browsers, whether that's Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge or Apple's Safari.

Private browsing on Windows tablets, laptops and desktops

Microsoft Edge browser logo displayed on a laptop

All Windows devices use either Internet Explorer (IE) or the newer Chromium-based Microsoft Edge browser. On IE and Edge, private browsing mode comes in the form of InPrivate browsing. To access this, select the 'More' icon, which is displayed as three small dots in the top right of the window, and then select 'New InPrivate window'.

By enabling this feature, your search history isn't saved, nor are temporary internet files such as cookies, browsing history, or form data. However, downloaded files and bookmarks stick around even after you close the InPrivate window.

It's worth noting that Microsoft's browsers also disable any third-party toolbars you might have installed when you start an InPrivate session.

Private browsing on Android smartphones, tablets and Chromebooks

Google Chrome's Incognito mode as shown on an Android device

Android uses Google Chrome as its default web browser. To enable a private browsing session on devices using this OS, you need to know that Google Chrome calls its private browsing mode Incognito Mode.

This can be accessed by simply selecting 'New Incognito Window' from the top right menu when in the Android Chrome app. You'll be able to tell you're using it by the secret agent icon by the change in the colour of the app's top bar to dark grey.

In Incognito Mode, Chrome won't keep track of the pages you visit, the data you enter into forms, or any searches you submit. However, it's worth noting that Incognito mode only prevents Chrome from saving your site visit activity. It won't stop other sources from seeing what sites you've visited, including your internet service provider; your employer, if you're using a work computer; and the websites you visit themselves.

Private browsing on iOS (iPhone, iPod, iPad and iPad Pro)

The Safari logo displayed on an iPhone screen

To enable Private Browsing in Apple's Safari app for iOS devices, simply open the app, select the tab icon on the bottom right of the screen and tap the Private option that pops up on the bottom left. You'll know you're in private browsing mode when the app's top and bottom toolbars go black instead of white or grey.

Safari's private browsing mode removes temporary files when you close the window. Browsing history, form data, and cookies are all wiped by default.

Private browsing on macOS: (iMac, MacBook)

A mouse hovering over the Safari logo on a MacBook

Entering private browsing mode on Safari for Mac desktop devices is very similar to doing so on the iOS app. Simply go to File > 'New Private Window'. A window that's using Private Browsing has a dark Smart Search field with white text.

Private browsing on Mozilla FireFox

The installation Firefox page for the app on an Android device

Mozilla Firefox isn't the default browser for most Android, iOS or Windows devices but it's sometimes pre-installed and if not, is still available to download for all the aforementioned operating systems. The user will usually have to download the app themselves via their operating system's respective app store if they want to use it. It can also be made the default browser for most devices if they so wish.

Mozilla's private browsing feature in FireFox is simply called Private Browsing mode' and offers the same privacy tools as Chrome and Edge. However, FireFox offers an additional tool that others browsers don't to make browsing even safer, and that's called Tracking Protection. This is said to prevent companies from tracking your browsing history across multiple sites so they can't record your browsing habits.

To open a Private Window, tap or click the menu button, which is presented as three horizontal bars in the top right corner of the window, and then select New Private Window. Once in Private Browsing mode, the browser window will display a purple mask at the top.

Private browsing isn't entirely private

When activating private browsing sessions, it's important to bear in mind that browsing and download data can never be entirely private, even though you may make great efforts to protect your data by enabling private browsing mode on different browsers and across all your devices.

You may be able to prevent advertisers from tacking your online movements, as well as your ISP, although it's impossible to completely mask your digital presence. This is because whenever your data will be stored in some place anytime you register for an account on a service, make an online purchase or register for a newsletter.

Should this data fall into the hands of cyber criminals, if the service you've signed up to is hacked for example, this data can subsequently be distributed across the internet and even sold to other bad actors for a variety of purposes, from accessing further personal details or even hijacking your identity. Sadly , nly a total internet blackout can prevent you from being entirely hidden and safe from your data leaking into the hands of others - malicious or not. But this is much easier said than done, and will require you to disable your Wi-Fi and mobile data on your smartphone, computer, tablet and any other device that might be fitted with networking components.   

Besides cyber attacks, your information can still be distributed online between services, even if it's against your consent. The advent of GDPR has been designed to stamp this practice out, and has in large part improved the situation, but illicit data-sharing still happens. Installing routers, firewalls and proxy servers may help to keep your browsing activity under wraps, as these tools are a step above the privacy that private browsing offers.

Containing your digital footprint, of course, is becoming increasingly difficult as time passes, given the growth in the number of household devices that can connect to the internet.

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