Does private browsing work?
September 22, 2011
Just about all of the major browsers have a private browsing function and they all work pretty much the same way - they discard your browsing history, browser cache, and information that you typed into forms once you close the browser. what kind of privacy you're after. More on this after the break. Allegedly, the value of a private browsing mode is that it would allow for use cases such as a thoughtful people who use a shared PC to plan surprise parties or to shop for gifts without tipping off the spouse/sibling/parent/friend/whatever. These sound a bit contrived to me. To the best of my recollection, Apple's Safari browser was the first major browser to have this functionality. Shortly after it was added, some enterprising individuals figured out how to rename the feature to more accurately reflect what they imagined the real use case might be. And therein lies the problem. Private browsing mode was really designed to protect your privacy from other people who use the same computer. And it does work in that case. Except, of course, when it doesn't. But for the most part, it works well enough. But it wasn't designed to solve the problems that people really care about.
Is private browsing good for anything?Well, aside from the aforementioned use cases, private browsing is good for one additional thing - being logged in to the same site using the same browser at the same time. Want to be logged in to your personal Gmail and your Oxyconnect account at the same time but don't want to use two separate browsers? Open up your InPrivate browsing tab or go incognito. You can then use your personal Gmail in one tab and your Oxyconnect email in the private tab (or window). A side note here, this won't work if you're using Firefox or Safari because on these browsers, the privacy mode is enabled for all tabs and windows simultaneously. Internet Explorer and Chrome enable it on a per-tab and per-window basis.
So what if I really do want to browse the web with true anonymity?In some ways, you're out of luck because the technology is working against you. The best you can do is fake it. There are services that claim to "anonymize" your traffic and they work by masking the network address of your computer and what browser you're using. If all you want to do is read web content, then you're all set. But an anonymizer can't protect you from yourself. The best anonymizer in the world won't help you if you decide to go off and do something stupid. The worst thing you can do is to allow yourself to be lulled into a false sense of security. Private browsing and anonymizers are perfectly useful tools as long as you use them to solve the problems they were intended to solve but just remember that they won't work miracles. At the end of the day, what you do is more important than the technology you use to do it.
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