But clicking the “private” browsing option may not protect you as much as you think, some privacy experts say.
These options have different names – Private Browsing on Safari and Firefox, and Incognito Mode on Chrome – but the functionality is similar in each. In these private modes, the selected browser does not keep a log of visited websites, cached pages 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 provides some level of protection online, privacy experts say it stops short of preventing the user from being tracked entirely — potentially limiting the protection it can provide women in this new legal landscape.
“We need to recognize that turning on 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 a fellow at New York University School of Law .
What does private browsing mode do?
As designed, private browsing modes are best suited to protect your online activity from other people using the same device, according to experts, but it does little beyond providing the local shield.
“For example, it can be useful for trans and queer children who are worried about being tracked by their parents, and for people who may be in a situation where they cannot separate their computer from other people who can access their browsing history. , ” says Fox Cahn.
The private mode can also help reduce cross-site tracking. On Chrome, for example, users are told: “Websites 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,” said Parisa Tabriz, VP of the Chrome browser. “Some people want to protect their privacy on shared or borrowed devices, or to exclude certain activities from their browsing history. Incognito helps with these use cases.”
Typically, when a person browses the web, companies will use tracking devices known as cookies to keep track of digital activity from one website to the next for better targeted advertising. Depending on the browser and user preferences, private browsing mode may reduce the sharing of information across websites. However, with some browsers, users need to know to select these additional options, beyond simply selecting private mode.
Safari, for example, has a standard Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature, which limits cross-site tracking while allowing websites to continue to function normally. The “Prevent Cross-Site Tracking” and “Block All Cookies” options.
Private modes are also limited in effectiveness when it comes to IP addresses, which are associated with 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 by the recipient because when your browser sends the request to get data, the server receiving the request needs to know where to send the data back to,” said Andrew Reifers, associate professor professor at the University of Washington Information School. An internet provider can also record a user’s online activity regardless of the browser’s privacy settings.
Some browsers offer additional protection to address this. Safari has a “Hide IP Address” option separate from Private Browsing Mode which, when enabled, sends user browsing information to two different devices, one getting the IP address but not the website being visited, and the other getting the website but not the IP address. . In this way, none of them has all the information about a user. Other browsers also have options to mask IP addresses, such as VPN extensions or “disable Geo IP” features that stop browsers from sharing a user’s location with websites.
What doesn’t private browsing modes protect?
Web browsing is stored in two places: on the local computer and by the websites visited. When a user in private browsing mode goes to 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 Facebook account records and of Facebook’s ad analytics.
The record users leave online, with or without enabling private browsing options, creates a lot of uncertainty about how that data can be used as evidence by law enforcement in states that criminalize abortions. Technology companies have said little about how they will handle such requests. Groups promoting digital rights and reproductive freedoms are now warning people in those states to guard their digital footprints when seeking abortion information and resources online, and are sharing tips on how to do so.
Also, if someone is working on a business or school-owned laptop, private browsing mode won’t do much at all. “If you have a computer where someone else is managing it, it’s not really possible to have privacy against that person,” said Eric Rescorla, CTO at Mozilla. “If an employer owns your computer, they can put any type of surveillance software on your computer they want, 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 offer total protection in these cases. “When you’re 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 you turn on incognito mode,” Tabriz said.
Users should also keep in mind that the protection offered in private mode is 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. “Many of the applications we use don’t have a built-in incognito mode,” Reifers said. “You don’t really know what that application stores.”
What extra steps can you take to protect yourself online?
Beyond 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, effectively protecting both who and where a user is. “A good first step would be to use a private browsing mode and a VPN together,” Rescorla said.
But using a VPN potentially gives the VPN operator access to your browsing activity. “Many of these will sell that information or certainly make it available to the police if they serve an arrest warrant,” warns Fox Cahn.
Internet users may also consider turning to a browser such as Tor, a secure and anonymous alternative that uses multiple intermediate servers to prevent a single server from fully tracking activity, according to privacy experts.
Above all, experts emphasize that internet users should be aware that web activity is not fundamentally private, regardless of browser settings. And while clearing browsing history and clearing cookies makes data recovery more difficult for third parties, it’s still not impossible with certain forensic tools and safeguards.
Fox Cahn emphasizes that those concerned with privacy such as abortion seekers should take as many steps as possible, even buying a new device that is not traceable or using services like Tor. “It’s cumbersome, but it provides a lot more protection,” he said. “You have to keep in mind that all these things can do is reduce the risk. None of them are absolutely perfect.”