Can private browsing be traced on an iPhone?

Private Browsing Mode is a neat privacy feature for Safari users who want to easily hide their browsing histories. However, that’s where its privacy protection ends. You can still be tracked even if you use Private Browsing. Not all is lost, though: we’ll tell you what to do to prevent your private browsing from being traced on an iPhone.  

    What is Private Browsing? 

    Private Browsing is Safari’s implementation of private browsing mode present in all modern browsers. Here’s what it does: 

    • It prevents your browsing from appearing in the History on your iPhone.
    • Your Private Mode tabs don’t appear on your other connected Apple devices. 

    Here’s why it exists:

    • To give you search results that aren’t biased by your previous searches. 
    • To hide your browsing history effortlessly – otherwise, you’d have to go into History and delete every offending entry yourself, then clear out the cookies, and so on.

    But while you no longer have to worry about someone discovering your search history by taking your iPhone, that’s where the privacy functions end. 

    How do you turn on Private Browsing on an iPhone? 

    Here’s a short guide on how to enable Private Browsing mode on the Safari browser:

    Step 1. Open Safari on your iPhone (or iPad).

    Step 2. Tap on the Tabs button. 

    Step 3. Tap [number] Tabs to show the Tab Groups list.

    Step 4. Tap Private, then tap Done.

    And now you’re browsing privately, somewhat. To exit Private Browsing, here’s what you do:

    Step 1. Open Safari. 

    Step 2. Tap on the Tabs button.

    Step 3. Tap Private to show the Tab Groups list.

    Step 4. Tap [number] Tabs, then tap Done.

    Is Private Browsing mode really private?

    Private Browsing is only private within the context of your iPhone. However, browsing the internet means going beyond the bounds of your device and using an online infrastructure that you don’t control. 

    Therefore, you can still be tracked. Here’s how:

    • The website knows that you visited it (especially if you logged into your account) because it needs that data to reply to you.
    • Your ISP can see that you’re using their infrastructure to access a website just from the data required to make the connection. 
    • Whoever runs the local Wi-Fi can see that you visited it because they act as a lighter version of the ISP. 

    Private Browsing can’t protect against things like that.

    6 ways Private Browsing can be traced on an iPhone

    Yes, there are multiple ways to track you: 

    1. By your IP address

    Every house has an address, and every online device has an IP (Internet Protocol) address. If the website you’re trying to reach didn’t know it, it wouldn’t know where to send the website data. This includes merely going to the website, as the text, fonts, and images have to be sent to your device. As such, a website can log when it was accessed, by what IP address, and for how long. 

    1. By your account activity

    If you log into your Facebook account on Private Browsing, Facebook still knows that it’s you. In fact, logging into your account is the #1 way to make any privacy protection methods you use pointless. 

    1. By Wi-Fi router logs

    The router, well, routes your data to the internet. As such, it needs to know what device is trying to access what website or service. Those logs can be kept and pulled up to see any activity. 

    1. By your ISP

    Read the previous entry about routers, and replace the word with ISP. After all, their infrastructure still needs to know where the data is going, and such actions can be logged. And if you’re an American, it can then be sold to data brokers.

    1. By malware and plug-ins

    Active plug-ins can track you if they’re switched on during Private Browsing. Similarly, malware doesn’t care what private browsing feature you’re using.  

    1. By browser fingerprinting

    Browser fingerprinting can identify your device even without cookies. For example, HTML5, the base code for modern websites, allows the website to identify you via the combination of your browser, OS, and hardware. You can’t reach and delete this data. 

    How do you check the Private Browsing history on an iPhone?

    Previously, it was possible to check Private Browsing history on iPhones without much trouble. But after updates, it’s possible only by installing specific apps. 

    As a business dealing in privacy protection, we believe that people have a right to do whatever legal thing they want to do on their phones. So if you want to check someone else’s Private Browsing history, consider talking to them instead. 

    How to avoid being tracked on Private Browsing 

    We can offer you a few bits of technical advice on what to do to not be tracked in Private Browsing Mode:

    Tip #1: Don’t use your real account 

    If you need to log in to an account on Private Mode, have a throwaway account that you don’t care about getting tracked. Doesn’t really help if you want to check your existing social media accounts or email inboxes, but if you’re doing that on Private Browsing, be aware that the websites can track you. 

    Tip #2: Don’t give out your personal data

    If you post your photos or mention your name or do anything of the sort online, no amount of private browsing can keep your data safe. Even if that data isn’t tied to your accounts or IP, it’s still out there. 

    Tip #3: Disable extensions

    This only applies if you’ve enabled all your regular extensions for the Private Mode; go back and disable them to prevent tracking. This applies doubly to extensions tied to your email, social media accounts, and so on. 

    Tip #4: Update your software

    Prior to iOS 11, you could check Private Browsing data via Website Data lookup. We’re at iOS 15 now, so make sure to update your stuff. See? There is a point to software updates, after all. 

    Tip #5: Remove malware

    Malware can bypass many privacy tools as they are not designed to fool them. It’s always good practice to check your device for viruses and other malware, so run that check now. 

    Tip #6: Use a search engine that doesn’t track you

    Google tracks you because they want to show you ads, so many ads – and so do many other large search engines. So why not use a privacy-oriented search tool like Surfshark Search to avoid that?

    Tip #7: Check if your smartphone is hacked

    Most (if not all) ways to look up Private Mode history on an iPhone require someone with access to your phone to install specialized monitoring software (which is different from malware and thus may not be detected by antivirus tools). Check your phone for it. That’s one of the ways to know your phone has been hacked. 

    Tip #8: Use iPhone privacy functions

    iPhone now has a Hide IP address function, though it only works against trackers. You can also reroute your data by using the iCloud Private Relay, but that’s a half-measure. If you want to get serious about hiding your IP, follow the next step. 

    Tip #9: Get a VPN

    By using a VPN, all your data is encrypted on your device and routed via a VPN server. So your ISP or your workplace will only see an encrypted connection to the server, while services you’re accessing will see the server’s IP. This also keeps your data hidden from any Wi-Fi router-based snooping. Why not try a VPN for free?

    All in all, anonymity is impossible online, but by using the best practices outlined above, you can be a lot more private. 

    You CAN make your private browsing private on iPhone

    Can Private Browsing be traced on the iPhone? Yes. The feature has its appeal, but its functions are limitless. It mainly serves to prevent other people messing with your smartphone from rooting through your browsing history. So, you have to take other steps to make it private. And, if you want to start by finding a privacy-focused search engine, Surfshark Search can definitely help you with that.

    Surfshark Search comes packaged with Surfshark VPN

    Get Surfshark

    FAQ

    Can Private Browsing be tracked by the police?

    Yes. The police can get a warrant to make your internet service provider give up your connection logs. Since Private Browsing Mode doesn’t hide anything from the ISP, they will see what IPs you connected to and when. 

    Does Private Browsing Mode work on Wi-Fi?

    Yes. Mobile data, Wi-Fi, whatever – as long as you’re accessing the internet, it works. 

    Can Private Browsing be tracked on Wi-Fi?

    Yes, it can. In fact, the person providing the Wi-Fi can do so by bugging the Wi-Fi router, so you can be tracked by them and your ISP. 

    How do I know if Safari is in Private Mode?

    In Private Browsing Mode, the Safari search/URL bar becomes dark. 

    Why can’t I find Private Browsing on my iPhone?

    The most likely cause is that the Screen Time parenting app is at work, which can block Private Browsing from being an option.