Private browsing can be used to stop your chosen web browser logging and monitoring important details about your online habits. In private mode, most browsers will disable browsing, search and browsing histories, the online cache and cookies, and will stop storing information added to forms for the autofill function.
However, a common misconception about private browsing is that it guarantees the privacy of everything you do online. It does not, for two main reasons:
- Private browsing features only apply to your local device.
- Private browsing does not hide your IP address, location, device details and so on, all of which can be used to identify you.
A typical browser’s “private” mode protects your data on your side of the connection. It makes sure there is no stored record of what you did during a private session in your browser. So if you’re shopping for Christmas presents, and you want to ensure your kids don’t track back through the browser history to see what you’ve been purchasing, private browsing will serve you well.
But on the wider web, all bets are off. Your IP is still visible to other servers. And that could reveal your location, or allow the site to track your activity over a period of weeks or months. Your ISP is probably keeping a record of your activity, whether you use “private” browsing mode or not. And in some countries - including the UK - that information could be passed on to government authorities.
That way, ISPs and web companies are still able to track what you do online, even when you use private browsing.
Some web browsers offer a little more with their private modes to try to address this. Mozilla’s Firefox, for example, has a tracking protection option that tries to restrict what external parties can see about your online activity. Opera goes a step further and allows you to browse via a VPN, thus hiding your IP address.
But features are inconsistent, and extensions could still track you behind the scenes.
In truth, connecting via a VPN is the only guaranteed way to stop your online activity being tracked by third parties. Whether you use private browsing mode or not