Private browsing may not protect you as much as you think

Private browsing may not protect you as much as you think
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But clicking the “private” browsing option might not protect you as much as you think, some privacy experts say.

These options have different names: private browsing in Safari and Firefox, and incognito mode in Chrome, but the functionality is similar in each. In these private modes, your chosen browser does not keep a record of sites visited, pages cached, or information saved, such as credit card numbers and addresses. It also prevents session information from being stored in the cloud.

Although using these options adds a certain level of protection online, privacy experts say it falls short of preventing the user from being tracked entirely, which could limit the protections it can provide women in this new legal landscape. .

“We have to recognize that simply switching to a private mode often does very little to prevent third-party tracking and especially law enforcement tracking,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and CEO of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and member of the New York University Law School.

What does private browser mode do?

As designed, private browsing modes are best suited to protecting your web activity from others using the same device, experts say, but it does little more than offer that local shield.

“It can be useful, for example, for trans and queer kids who are worried about being tracked by their parents and for people who may be in a situation where they can’t safely separate their computer from other people who can access it. to browser history”. Fox Cahn says.

Private mode can also help reduce tracking between websites. In Chrome, for example, users are told, “Websites see you as a new user and won’t know who you are as long as you don’t sign in.”

“People choose 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 histories. Incognito helps with these use cases.”

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Typically, when a person browses online, companies use tracking devices known as cookies to keep up with digital activity from site to site for better targeted advertising. Depending on the browser and the user’s choices, private browsing mode may reduce the sharing of information between sites. But with some browsers, users need to know how to select these additional options, beyond simply opting into private mode.

Safari, for example, has a default Smart Tracking Prevention feature, which limits cross-site tracking and allows sites to continue to function normally. Your options “Prevent cross-site tracking” and “Block all cookies” are additional steps to protect users, but these features are separate from private mode. Chrome, for its part, warns users that they should choose to 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 on the Internet, as well as “smart blocking” to allow third-party logins through sites like Facebook or Twitter. while working to avoid tracking.

Private modes also have limited effectiveness when it comes to IP addresses, which are tied to the device and can be used to geo-locate the user.

“Whether you’re in privacy mode or not, the recipient should always know your IP address because when your browser sends the request to get data, the server receiving the request needs to know where to send that data back to,” he said. Andrew Reifers, an associate professor of teaching at the University of Washington School of Information. An Internet service provider may also record a user’s online activity, regardless of the privacy settings of your browser.

Some browsers offer additional protections to this address. Safari has a separate “Hide IP Address” setting from Private Browsing mode which, when enabled, sends information from the user’s browser to two different entities, 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, you do not have all the information of a user. Other browsers also have options for masking IP addresses, such as VPN extensions or “Geo IP disable” capabilities that prevent browsers from sharing a user’s location with websites.

What don’t private browser modes protect?

Online browsing is stored in two places: on the local computer and on visited sites. 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 logs and by Facebook ad analytics. Facebook.

The record users leave online, with or without private browsing options enabled, creates a lot of uncertainty about how police might use that data as evidence in states that criminalize abortion. The tech companies have said little about how they would 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 sharing tips on how to do so.

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Also, if someone is working on a company or school laptop, Private Browsing mode won’t do much good. “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, Mozilla’s CTO. “If an employer owns your computer, they can install any kind of monitoring software on the computer they want and it can measure anything you do. So, no, it doesn’t protect you against that, but almost nothing would.”

Google Chrome also warns users that Incognito Mode cannot offer full 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 made this clear by opening incognito mode,” Tabriz said.

Users should also note that the protections offered in private mode are unique 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. “A lot of the apps we use don’t have incognito mode built in,” Reifers said. “You don’t really know what that app is storing.”

What additional steps can you take to protect yourself online?

Beyond enabling private browsing modes and selecting 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 who and where the 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 allows the VPN operator to access your browsing activity. “Many of these will sell that information or certainly make it available to law enforcement if they present a warrant,” warns Fox Cahn.

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Internet users may also consider turning to a browser like Tor, a secure and anonymous option that uses multiple intermediary servers to prevent a single server from tracking activity entirely, according to privacy experts.

Above all, experts stress that Internet users should be aware that online activity is not fundamentally private, regardless of browser settings. And while clearing browsing history and emptying third-party cookie caches makes data recovery difficult for parties, it’s still not impossible with certain forensic tools and safeguards.

Fox Cahn stresses that those who are concerned about data privacy, such as those seeking abortions, should take all possible measures, including 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 you can do is reduce the amount of risk. None of them are absolutely perfect.”

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