Your browser remembers a lot of information about you, regardless of the device you use to surf the web.
That includes the sites you've visited, the cookies that track your activity, what you’ve typed into search engines, and any account log-ins you’ve decided to store.
While this can be handy in helping you get to frequently-visited websites more quickly, it can be detrimental to your privacy, especially if you’re sharing a device with people who you’d prefer didn’t see what you’re been doing online. One way around this is private browsing, a feature built into all web browsers that can keep your search history and other data somewhat secret. With private browsing, all your information disappears as soon as you close your browser.
Depending on the operating system (OS) of the device you’re using, these privacy capabilities are available via the web browsers installed as default, whether it be Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge or Apple’s Safari. Not sure how to do it? Here’s how to enable private browsing on any device.
Windows tablets, laptops and desktops
All Windows devices use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) or the much newer Edge (depending on the age of your device) as the default browser. On IE and Edge, private browsing mode comes in the form of InPrivate browsing. To access this, select the More icon, which is displayed as three small dots in the top right of the window, and then select New InPrivate window.
By enabling this feature, your search history isn’t saved nor are temporary internet files such as cookies, browsing history, or form data. However, downloaded files and bookmarks stick around even after you close the InPrivate window.
It’s worth noting that Microsoft's browsers also disable any third-party toolbars you might have installed when you start an InPrivate session.
Android smartphones, tablets and Chromebooks
The Android OS uses Google Chrome as its default web browser. To enable a private browsing session on devices using this OS, you need to know that Google Chrome calls its private browsing mode Incognito Mode.
This can be accessed by simply selecting “New Incognito Window” from the top right menu when in the Android Chrome app. You’ll be able to tell you're using it by the "secret agent" icon by the change in the colour of the app’s top bar to dark grey.
In Incognito Mode, Chrome won't keep track of the pages you visit, the data you enter into forms, or any searches you submit. However, it’s worth noting that Incognito mode only prevents Chrome from saving your site visit activity. It won't stop other sources from seeing what sites you’ve visited, including your internet service provider; your employer, if you're using a work computer; and the websites you visit themselves.
iOS (iPhone, iPod, iPad and iPad Pro)
To enable Private Browsing in Apple’s Safari app for iOS devices, simply open the app, select the tab icon on the bottom right of the screen and tap the Private option that pops up on the bottom left. You’ll know you’re in private browsing mode when the app’s top and bottom toolbars go black instead of white or grey.
Safari's private browsing mode removes temporary files when you close the window. Browsing history, form data, and cookies are all wiped by default.
Mac OS X: (iMac, Macbook)
Entering private browsing mode on Safari for Mac desktop devices is very similar to doing so on the iOS app. Simply go to File > New Private Window. A window that’s using Private Browsing has a dark Smart Search field with white text.
Mozilla Firefox isn’t the default browser for most Android, iOS or Windows devices but it's sometimes pre-installed and if not, is still available to download for all the aforementioned operating systems. The user will usually have to download the app themselves via their operating system’s respective app store if they want to use it. It can also be made the default browser for most devices if they so wish.
Mozilla’s private browsing feature in FireFox is simply called ‘Private Browsing mode’ and offers the same privacy tools as Chrome and Edge. However, FireFox offers an additional tool that others browsers don’t to make browsing even more safe, and that’s called Tracking Protection. This is said to prevent companies from tracking your browsing history across multiple sites so they can’t record your browsing habits.
To open a Private Window, tap or click the menu button, which is presented as three horizontal bars in the top right corner of the window, and then select New Private Window. Once in Private Browsing mode, the browser window will display a purple mask at the top.
Any device, any browser
While the above browsers are installed on their respective operating systems as default, it’s worth noting that most of the browser apps are available to download across the different devices. For example, you can download the Chrome browser on iPhone and Windows devices despite it being made by Google and the default browser on Android devices.
Not entirely private
If you’re concerned about who can see your online data, you should be aware that private browsing isn’t entirely safe. Between internet shopping, online banking, and the rise of cloud computing, our personal and financial details are ripe for the taking if they fall into the wrong hands. But private browsing alone won’t protect you against data theft
It's still very possible to see what you've been doing even if you use private browsing all the time. Routers, firewalls, and proxy servers could be keeping tabs on your browsing activities, and private browsing mode won't get in the way of that.
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