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How private is private browsing?

Rinus Reuvekamp

Many people do not understand the incognito mode of browsers. Do they really offer private browsing to third parties? What do the companies that make these browsers say?

Most browsers, such as Safari (Apple) or Chrome (Google), offer a private browsing option, which is sometimes called "incognito." In this way, whoever surfs the Internet can do it through a window that is private in the sense that the system does not keep track of the visited pages. For example, there is no way to do the auto-fill when a page asks for a password of one of our accounts.

Let's say that the browser forgets all this and does not want to remember it either. But this protection, this supposed privacy, is not as broad as many people believe, even in spite of what the explanations of the browsers say in incognito mode.

Key Facts from research studies

In a recent study, 460 people were questioned about what private browsing meant, in addition to answering a series of questions about the expectation of user privacy. The researchers then reported their results at a conference held in Lyon, France, on April 26, 2018.

Those who answered the questions expressed their little understanding of the incognito mode, no matter what explanations the browser gave them about that mode. For example, half of those questioned connected through their Google account thought that in a private window, Google could not save information from their searches.

Of course, this is not true! 25% of the participants believed that private browsing obstructed the IP address of the device where it was, which gives a good reference of the physical location where the connected person is. Again, wrong conception!

Blase Ur, a researcher in computer security at the University of Chicago, along with his colleagues, suggests that companies could mitigate the confusion generated in this issue by giving clearer and more explicit explanations about the incognito mode.

For example, descriptions should avoid vague arguments, or sweet promises about anonymity, such as when the Opera browser says "your secrets are safe" or what Firefox appeals: "Navigate as if nobody was watching you."

Is Private Browsing Safe? 

What is clear is that private browsing is not too private although this does not mean that it is easy for third parties to find out where a person navigates. However, the Internet provider knows, of course, the sites to which its users eventually enter.

It is a lie that "your secrets are safe," although being frank, they also do not freely reveal the sites by which users navigate when they are in incognito mode. Let's say that for every day uses, the incognito scheme is quite safe and defines the user's anonymity to a large extent.

How does incognito navigation help? Well, not much. "It allows you to surf the Internet without saving any information about the web pages you visit," explains Firefox. Some security experts consider it a good idea to turn on the private mode when banking transactions are taking place, for example. According to Chrome, those who can follow your steps are your Internet provider, your employer (if you are using a computer at work) and the sites you visit.

Search engines that promise private browsing, such as DuckDuckGo, try to solve the problem through encryption and with promises not to collect any kind of data. However, according to the experts, they are not infallible.

Regarding absolute private search, we believe that only several tools and methods could be used at the same time that technically they are not available to any user. One of them is "encryption of point-to-point communications or the use of VPN (Virtual Private Networks)."

In the end, we believe that privacy, as in the physical world, is a matter of trust among all the actors involved in the process of sending and receiving information.