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Private browsing may not protect you as much as you think

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But choosing the “private” browsing option may not protect you as much as you think, according to some privacy experts.

These options have different names—Private Browsing in Safari and Firefox, and Incognito Mode in Chrome—but the functionality is the same. In these private modes, the selected browser does not keep a log of visited sites, cached pages, or stored information such as credit card numbers and addresses. It also prevents session information from being stored in the cloud.

While using these options does add a certain level of protection online, privacy experts say they don’t completely prevent a user from being tracked, potentially limiting the protection they can provide to women in this new legal landscape.

“We have to admit that often, simply switching to private mode does very little to prevent third-party snooping, especially law enforcement,” said Albert Fox Kahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and New York Times contributor. York University School of Law.

What does private browsing mode do?

According to experts, private browsing modes are best for protecting your web activity from other people using the same device, but they do little more than offer this local shield.

“This can be useful, for example, for transgender and queer children who are worried about being tracked by their parents, and for people who may be in a situation where they cannot safely separate their computer from other people who may access browser history. ” says Fox Kahn.

Private mode can also help reduce tracking across different websites. For example, in Chrome, users are told “Websites see you as a new user and won’t know who you are until you sign in.”

“People prefer to browse the web privately for many reasons,” said Parisa Tabriz, vice president of Chrome Browser. “Some people want to protect their privacy on shared or borrowed devices or exclude certain activities from their browsing history. Incognito helps with these use cases.”

Typically, when a person is browsing a site on the Internet, companies use tracking devices known as cookies to track digital activity from one site to another for more targeted advertising. Depending on the browser and the user’s choice, private browsing mode can reduce the sharing of information between sites. But in some browsers, users need to know to select these additional options beyond just choosing private mode.

Safari, for example, has Smart Tracking Prevention by default, which limits cross-site tracking while allowing sites to continue to function normally. Its options are “Prevent cross-site tracking” and “Block all cookies”. are additional steps to protect users, but these features are separate from private mode. In the meantime, Chrome tells users that they should block third-party cookies, even in incognito mode. Firefox added new default features last year, including “full cookie protection” to prevent users from being tracked online, as well as “smart blocking” to allow third-party logins through sites like Facebook or Twitter to still work. over tracking prevention.

Private modes are also limited in their effectiveness when it comes to IP addresses that are tied to a device and can be used to geolocate a user.

“Whether you are in privacy mode or not, your IP address should always be known to the recipient, because when your browser sends a request for data, the server that receives the request needs to know where to send that data back.” , said Andrew Reifers, an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Information. The ISP may also record the user’s online activity regardless of their browser’s privacy settings.

Some browsers offer additional protection to solve this problem. Safari has a “Hide IP Address” setting, separate from Private Browsing Mode, which, when enabled, sends information about the user’s browser to two different entities: one receives an IP address, but not the website visited, and the other receives the website, but not an IP address. . Thus, none of them has all the information about the user. Other browsers also have options for masking IP addresses, such as VPN extensions or “disable Geo IP” capabilities that prevent browsers from sharing a user’s location with websites.

What do private browsing modes not protect?

Online browsing is saved in two places: on the local computer and by visited sites. For example, when a user in Private Browsing accesses Facebook, their device will not have a saved record of that visit, but there will be a saved record of that visit in their Facebook account records and Facebook ad analytics.

The recordings that users leave online, with or without enabling private browsing options, create a lot of uncertainty about how that data can be used as evidence by law enforcement in states that criminalize abortion. Tech companies have said little about how they will handle such requests. Groups promoting digital rights and reproductive freedoms are now warning people in these states to protect their digital footprints when searching for abortion information and resources online, and are also sharing tips on how to do so.

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Moreover, if someone is working on a corporate or school laptop, private browsing mode won’t do much. “If you have a computer that is controlled by someone else, privacy against that person is not really possible,” said Eric Rescorla, Mozilla’s CTO. “If an employer owns your computer, they can install any monitoring software on the computer and measure everything you do. So no, it won’t protect you from it, but it won’t protect much of anything.”

Google Chrome also warns users that incognito mode may not provide complete protection in such cases. “In incognito mode, your activity may be visible to the websites you visit, your employer or school, or your ISP. We clearly indicate this when opening incognito mode,” Tabriz said.

Users should also keep in mind that the protection offered in private mode only applies to web browsing, which makes any activity in smartphone apps vulnerable. No matter how well private browsing mode works to protect user activity, it won’t help anywhere else. “A lot of the apps we use don’t have incognito mode built in,” Reifers said. “You don’t really know what this app stores.”

What additional steps can you take to protect yourself online?

In addition to enabling private browsing modes and choosing additional privacy options offered by companies in their settings, users can take some additional steps to try and maximize their digital privacy.

A VPN, or virtual private network, hides the IP address to make the user more anonymous online, effectively protecting both who and where the user is. “A good first step would be to use private browsing and a VPN together,” Rescorla said.

But using a VPN potentially allows the VPN operator to access your online activity. “Many of them will sell this information or, of course, make it available to the police if they provide a warrant,” warns Fox Kahn.

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Internet users may also consider using a browser like Tor, a secure and anonymous option that uses multiple intermediate servers to prevent any single server from being completely snooped on, according to privacy experts.

First of all, experts emphasize that Internet users should be aware that online activity is inherently non-private, regardless of browser settings. And while clearing browsing history and clearing cookie caches makes data recovery more difficult for third parties, it is still possible with certain forensic tools and warrants.

Fox Kahn emphasizes that those concerned with data privacy, such as those seeking abortions, should take as many steps as possible, even buying a new untraceable device or using services like Tor. “It’s bulky, but provides much more protection,” he said. “You have to keep in mind that all these things can do is reduce the amount of risk. None of them are absolutely perfect.”

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