What does private browsing do?

Private Browsing, incognito mode, InPrivate – call the browser feature for secretive internet use whichever way you like, it works the same way. It doesn’t make you truly private, though. Yes, Private Browsing does have some uses for obfuscating your online activities, but it leaves a lot to be desired. Heck, private browsing doesn’t even stop tracking. So, what does private browsing do then? We wrote this whole article to explain. 

    What does private browsing do? 

    Private browsing is a relatively new feature for online browsers. It’s usually engaged by opening a dedicated browser window. In use, it’s fairly similar to your everyday browsing experience, but with a few caveats:

    • It usually acts as a fresh browser install, not utilizing your history, saved settings, downloaded plug-ins, and so on. 
    • It deletes all the data it saves – from cookies to filled forms – after you close the window and the private browsing session ends. 

    The mode exists mainly for two reasons:

    • To do web searches not influenced by your usual browsing. With no prior data to rely on, the search engine cannot tailor your results to you, giving you a more honest search result. 
    • To hide your browsing history. Sure, you can manually delete browsing history after using regular browsing, but it’s annoying, and stuff like cookies, saved search field data, and so on can remain behind.

    So, in essence, it’s used to prevent you from becoming a subject of the “delete my search history when I die” meme. And, maybe, from sweating out all of your bodily fluids if someone sits down at your browser and enters the letter “p” in the search bar. However, that’s where the privacy functions end. 

    What private browsing doesn’t do

    Considering that private browsing does very little, this will be a quick section to cover. 

    Private browsing doesn’t:

    • Hide your IP address;
    • Hide your location;
    • Hide your browsing from the ISP, workplace, or school;
    • Overcome censorship or blocks;
    • Hide your activities from the website or service; 
    • Hide your activities on websites where you log in with your account;
    • Encrypt your data; 
    • Delete files you downloaded personally.

    Essentially, it only hides your browsing from other people who might use your device in the future and that’s it. 

    What are private browsing modes?

    Web browsers have different names for their private browser modes: 

    Google Chrome
    Incognito
    Mozilla Firefox
    Private Browsing
    Microsoft Edge
    InPrivate
    Safari
    Private Browsing
    Opera
    Private mode
    Brave
    Private window

    In most web browsers, it’s accessed by opening a new special window (not tab) via the usual browser menu. 

    Is private browsing mode really private?

    Private mode isn’t really private – moreover, it doesn’t even pretend to be. Let’s look at what an Incognito (private browsing session) window on Google Chrome has to say about it:

    See, it states outright what data it won’t save – and who may still track you despite using Incognito.

    That’s because private browsing mode only affects your device. Anything that happens outside its bounds remains untouched. The website knows that you visited it (especially if you logged into your account), whoever runs the local Wi-Fi can see that you visited it, and your internet service provider definitely can see that you visited it. Private browsing modes are powerless against these observers

    Can someone track my private browsing history?

    By golly, private browsing can be tracked by interested parties. Here’s how they can track you:

    1. Your IP address is still visible

    All internet devices have an IP address – this is how the world wide web infrastructure knows where to send data. So when you connect to a website, the site gets your IP address for the simple act of sending you all the necessary data to render it: fonts, logos, cat pictures – everything. This is unavoidable

    Thus, if your IP is 142.68.420.69 and you accessed the website at 16:32:32, the site’s logs now have an entry about being accessed by 142.68.420.69 at 16:32:32. Every action you take on the website can be tracked like that, which may inform how the website acts the next time you return. 

    1. Your account still records what you do

    Say you enable private browsing mode to access your DeviantArt account without letting other people who may use the device know that you’re a massive weeb. Congrats, your search history may not log it, but your DeviantArt account still records your actions to the extent that the website owners desire.

    So opening a private session and immediately logging into your Google account accomplishes very little, at most hiding your browsing history from your browser. Even if you have hidden something from your mom/spouse, Alphabet sees all. 

    1. Your work/school/uncle with access to the router can still see what you’re doing 

    When you connect to Wi-Fi (or a more old-fashioned wired router), NAT (network address translation) happens, replacing your device’s IP with the router’s. That’s because the current IP infrastructure doesn’t have enough addresses for everyone and devices have to share.

    The router has to know what data has to go to which device, so it obviously maintains those connection logs. And people with access to the router can view them. More than that, schools and workplaces use this access to set up firewalls that block access to certain IP addresses – usually the stuff you use to relieve the drudgery of education and/or having to work for a living. This is also one of the main reasons why people like to use a VPN at work.

    Don't let your employer track you

    Get a VPN
    1. Your internet service provider still knows what you’re doing 

    Router or no router, all the data you send and receive online goes through your ISP’s infrastructure – after all, you’re paying them for getting to use that same infrastructure. So, with the law permitting, an ISP can store your connection logs and access them at a later date. 

    Sometimes, the law makes the ISP store that data for a specified amount of time. And (most often American) law can let that ISP use the data it collects for marketing purposes – or sell it to data brokers, who also find profitable uses for it. Either way, you’re being tracked.

    1. Malware and browser plug-ins can still track you

    Most private sessions disable your browser plug-ins by default. That’s because those plug-ins are often gathering some data about you, and if you want to hide stuff, that’s less than ideal. 

    But no browser can disable malware, because that’s just how malware operates. So if there’s a keylogger or screen recorder on your device, it will steal your data without any regard for any private browsing features. You should really get an antivirus. 

    1. Browser fingerprinting can still track you

    Browser fingerprinting is a term for identifying your device and/or browser without putting any cookies on your device. This may take the form of, say, canvas fingerprinting. By using one feature of HTML5, the code running many modern websites, a site makes your device render an invisible picture. This allows the site to collect the data on your operating system, browser, graphics cards, drivers, and so on.

    You see, cookies can be deleted – both manually or automatically after the private mode session ends – but fingerprinting data exists on the website’s servers. Moreover, even if you change IP, you can still be matched via another browser fingerprinting session. 

    Stay private on private mode 

    Private browsing sessions may make your search history less spicy, but they don’t hide your activities. So you need to exercise caution even after opening a private window. As we mentioned before, choosing the right search engine is important. As luck would have it, we can recommend Surfshark Search as an unbiased search engine that doesn’t log your activities.

    Start searching with a real private browsing mode

    Get Surfshark Search

    FAQ

    Does private browsing hide your IP?

    No, it doesn’t. You need a proxy or a VPN for that. 

    Why does my husband use incognito mode?

    They’re your significant other, have you considered talking to them about it? We hear that communication is key to any healthy relationship. 

    Can my parents see my browsing history on Wi-Fi?

    If they’re smart enough to bug the Wi-Fi router, yes. 

    Does private browsing mode work on Wi-Fi?

    If you have a device that supports a web browser that has a private browsing mode, then yes, private mode will work on the device. 

    Private browsing also works on Wi-Fi because the way you connect to the internet doesn’t matter to it. Cable connection, Wi-Fi, mobile data, IPoAC – it still works. 

    How do you check private browsing history?

    There are ways to recover private browsing history or to detect if someone was using private mode. It usually involves spy apps and the like. However, as a VPN provider (among other things), we are firm believers in the privacy of anyone conducting lawful business online. 

    As it is very unlikely that you are a hardscrabble Interpol agent hinging your investigation on a mysterious Japanese villain killing people by entering their names into a book on a post on the Surfshark blog, we advise you to:

    • Consider couples therapy;
    • Talk to your child; 
    • Get off your employee’s back;
    • Learn to stay out of other people’s business.