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How Private Is Private Browsing?

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in PrivacyMay 14, 2021

This week Engadget reported a story about how Google is embroiled in a lawsuit because the company failed to adequately inform users about how their "Incognito" mode worked with the Google Chrome browser. Users assumed they were using a completely private browser and could enjoy anonymity and complete secrecy. They were wrong. Google was, in fact, monitoring activity and tracking data while users were incognito.

Class-Action Lawsuit Against Google

Google search

Google attempted to have the class-action suit thrown out, but Judge Lucy Koh denied the request and will allow a lawsuit to go forward. In the judge's ruling, she stated that Google "did not notify" users properly about the fact they were being monitored while using incognito mode. Google claims that because users agreed to the privacy policy, they did know, and they said it clearly stated that incognito "does not mean 'invisible.'"

The problem is that most people who use incognito do not know that it means Google can track your online activity. The browser does not display a warning, and it is marketed as a private browsing tool. The bottom line is that it is not obvious, and users should be warned that anything they do online using Google Chrome can be monitored and tracked.

How Private Browsing Works?

Although Apple is known to be committed to its users' privacy, the private mode in Safari is similar to Google Chrome's incognito mode. Although your browser won't store any information about your online activity and save cookies, your ISP and Apple could potentially track your movements, collect and save data about you. 

When using private browsers, you won't be automatically logged into your favorite sites. It is like a separate window not linked to your saved logins and settings. Your browser won't save the session or browser history, so no one can look at where you have been, but it doesn't mean you are enjoying 100% privacy.

Private browsing can block ad-trackers and third-party websites from monitoring your activity to push targeted advertisements at you. 

However, private browsing cannot protect you from online threats. If you download software, it will not stop you from installing malware on your machine. It will not block visits to potentially malicious websites or protect you from other threats.

Browser Options for True Private Online Activity

You can add some privacy extensions to Safari, Chrome, and Edge, but they aren't as good as a dedicated privacy browser. 

A few browsers are explicitly designed to protect the user's privacy without any tracking, saving, or storing of any kind. The top secure/private browsers you can use with total anonymity are:

private browser

Tor Private Browsing 

Although not the fastest browser, this one will allow you to cruise the dark web and visit anywhere on the internet with complete privacy.

Firefox Private Browsing

This open-source browser is made by the people for the people and has a lot more privacy features built-in than Google or Apple's native browsers.

DuckDuckGo Private Browsing 

DuckDuckGo is another excellent option for secure, private browsing without anyone tracking you or monitoring your online activity. 

Brave Private Browsing

One you may not have heard of but stands out in terms of privacy is the Brave browser. Check it out and enjoy a truly private browsing experience.

A few other quick mentions are Epic Browser, SRWare Iron, and Comodo Dragon Browser. All three of these get high marks for being extra cautious on the side of privacy and protecting your personal information and online activity. 

Another Option to Secure Your Privacy

Another possibly better option to secure your anonymity and privacy while online is to use a VPN. A virtual private network (VPN) masks your identity, IP address and makes you invisible online. They come in a variety of flavors and price points. Some you can install on your router/firewall to protect your entire network, or you can install them directly on a device like a mobile phone.

The best part about a VPN is they work using any browser and protect your entire device. So, if you install it on a cell phone and use your banking app at the coffee shop while connected to public Wi-Fi, your bank account credentials will remain secure. The connection between you and the websites you visit are protected using end-to-end encryption. Ad trackers cannot find you, hackers cannot see your activity, and you remain anonymous while being safe. 

The Privacy Bottom Line

Before you start using an online tool or browser, be sure to read the fine print. As we learned from the Google Chrome incident above, although something may be advertised as private and secure, the privacy policy may provide extra information about the truth. If you aren't quite sure what information is being collected about you and you aren't comfortable using one, consider installing a private browser or a VPN to do the job for you. 

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