JUL 20, 2024

What are private internet browsers?

With so much of our daily lives lived online – whether that’s working online, banking online or even just the simpler pleasures of shopping online or accessing entertainment services – it’s natural enough to wonder about just how private your actual online usage is.

The short answer to this question? Not particularly private at all. The modern Internet is built on a system that uses a lot of tracking data, and while some of that is absolutely necessary – if you want to access a web page, then the server for that page needs to know that it’s your laptop, tablet or phone that’s trying to access it – there’s plenty of online tracking that goes on that is considerably more commercial in nature – and may reveal a lot more about you and your habits than you’d really want outside individuals and businesses to know.

Often when online privacy is brought up, there’s an assumption that online privacy tools are only of interest to online users up to no good, but there’s good reason to consider your own online privacy at all times.

What you do online says a lot about you, and it is information that you might not want spread far and wide – or to build profiles about you to sell to online marketers, either.

That’s true whether that’s because you’d rather keep your own medical conditions on a personal level, or you’re shopping for a surprise gift for your significant other, or any other reason. Privacy should be an assumed standard online, but with a bevy of tracking technologies across web sites, social media platforms and apps, there’s often a lot more information about you and your online habits than you’d likely be comfortable with.

Understanding Incognito/Privacy Modes in existing browsers

A lot of Internet users will make the assumption that using the private mode on their already installed browser is 100% the same thing as being entirely private online.

For Google Chrome that’s called “Incognito” mode, Microsoft’s Edge calls it “InPrivate” browsing, and Apple’s Safari refers to the same concept as a “Private

Window”.

If you’re entirely new to these concepts, here’s how to enable them for single browsing sessions on desktop computers:

How to enable Incognito Browsing on Chrome

  1. Open Google Chrome
  2. Click the three-dot menu in the top right of the window, and choose “New Incognito Window”
  3. A new browser page will open in Incognito mode.

How to enable private browsing on Microsoft Edge

  1. Open Microsoft Edge
  2. Click the three-dot menu in the top right of the window, and choose “New InPrivate Window”
  3. A new browser page will open in InPrivate mode.

How to enable private mode on Apple Safari

  1. Open Safari
  2. Click on File in the upper left-hand corner, and then “New Private Window”
  3. A new browser page or tab will open in Private mode

Limitations of private/incognito modes

Most incognito modes operate on the same basis, which is essentially to promise that they’re not storing information locally on your computer. That can be useful for on-site privacy – if you’re buying a secret gift for a family member online, for example – and most will also kill any tracking cookies that browsers would otherwise typically store once you close a given page.

That’s not the same thing as saying that you’re sneaking in and out of sites like some kind of digital ninja.

Far from it, because the private modes in existing browsers do precious little to avoid other tracking mechanisms that sites or services may employ.

Log into your Facebook account from a private browser session, and Facebook still knows full well what you’ve done while you were there, after all. All that the private mode is doing is wiping clean the traces of the sites you visit on your computer, not on any other networks, devices or services. They will still have as full a record as they choose to capture about what you’ve been up to.

Equally, because the traffic used in simple private browser windows isn’t typically encrypted, it’s still plain and obvious to your ISP, or to whoever is running your current Internet connection, such as when you’re using public Wi-Fi services.

Private Browser Choices

Private or Incognito modes then are most secure in situations where you’ve got a shared computer and for whatever reason, you don’t want other users of that machine to view what you’ve been up to. It’s not a silver bullet to give you full privacy from every online business, tracker or government agency – and to be entirely clear, the only way to achieve that would be to not be online at all!

That’s hardly practical when so many essential services are more easily accessed online, or in some cases non-existent outside the Internet, however.

This is where browsers with more of a privacy focus come into play. They encompass the existing privacy approaches of private browser modes in terms of not logging locally the sites you visit or keeping locally stored cookies, but then add in layers of tracker blocking, ad blocking and in some cases integrated VPNs to provider additional layers of privacy.

Brave is a popular private browser option.

There’s a number of available private browsers, including options such as Brave, DuckDuck Go Browser, Ecosia, Vivaldi and the Tor browser to choose from. Some may also incorporate ad blocking features as well, and it’s typically not much more effort to test them to see if they meet your browsing needs than to install them and try them out on your laptop or desktop. There are variants for mobile devices for many major private browsers as well, though their implementation can be a little different on smaller screens.

It’s worth keeping in mind that with much of the Internet built around some level of tracking or ad display, some privacy browsers may not work optimally with every web site, especially if they do incorporate ad blocking features.

For some sites, those ads represent their business model, and they may block features or content behind paywalls or restrict usage if they detect ad blocking activity. Because many privacy browsers don’t allow local storage of passwords or cookies over time, their usage will also typically restrict your ability to stay logged into some services. That should keep those services private and secure – but that does usually also mean you’ve got to log in every time when using those sites or services.

One final word here regarding online privacy; while the tools mentioned above can somewhat obfuscate your online activity, there’s really no such thing as a 100% private Internet session, somewhat by design.

If you’re transacting in any way online, then that requires the public Internet for the passage of that information; while you can work in some ways to block tracking mechanisms and encrypt information being sent, the when and where of where it’s come to and from can also reveal a lot about your online usage – and that’s without getting into the oversight powers of larger bodies such as national governments.

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Alex Kidman
A multi-award winning journalist, Alex has written about consumer technology for over 20 years. He has written and edited for virtually every Australian tech publication including Gizmodo, CNET, PC Magazine, Kotaku and more.