What Is Private Browsing, and Can it Protect You Online?

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It’s next to impossible to use the Internet without leaving a digital footprint of some kind, but private browsing can offer you some protection from prying eyes.

Private-browsing capabilities are built into the Internet browsers you use everyday, though sometimes they go by different names — for instance, Google Chrome has Incognito, and Internet Explorer has InPrivate mode. By using a private browsing session, you can keep your search history and other data somewhat secret. There are several more potential uses, which I’ll cover below.

However, you should know that private browsing is far from a silver bullet if you’re truly concerned about keeping your data safe online. 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 is private browsing alone an effective hedge against data theft? Not likely — read on to find out why.

What Is Private Browsing?

Normally, every website you visit is recorded in your browser’s history. Your browser will remember the URLs of sites you frequently visit, files you’ve downloaded, data “cookies” that track your activity on certain sites, what you’ve typed into search engines, and any account log-ins you’ve decided to store.

Assuming you’re on a private computer, this can be very convenient. If you frequently visit certain pages, your browser may automatically fill in the URL as soon as you start typing. If you read something useful but can’t remember where you saw it a couple days later, a quick peek at your history will point you in the right direction. If you’re tired of remembering passwords, your browser can remember them for you.

Perhaps, however, someone else uses your computer and you’re uncomfortable knowing they’ll have access to such a complete digital footprint. If you use your browser’s private mode, all the information I listed above disappears as soon as you close your browser. Maybe you were surfing sites you’d be embarrassed to share, or maybe you were planning a surprise anniversary trip — either way, whoever hops on your computer next will likely be none the wiser.

Other Uses for Private Browsing

Keeping the websites you visit from prying eyes is probably the most common use for private browsing. However, there are other reasons you might want to use it. In fact, I use private browsing while researching articles for The Simple Dollar so that I’m not inundated with ads for loans, credit cards, or the like while I browse the web.

Here are some other ways private browsing can come in handy:

  • Protecting yourself when you’re not on your own computer: Maybe you’ve forgotten to log out of Facebook — or worse, your online bank account — when using a public computer. When you use private browsing, you’re automatically logged out of any open accounts as soon as you end your browsing session. That can keep your information safe from an opportunistic data thief or an overly curious friend or stranger.
  • Blocking sites from collecting your personal information: Your browsing history is so long and detailed that much of what you see online is targeted specifically for you. Amazon shows you products you may want to buy based on past purchases, and Google thinks it knows what you want to search for based on what you’ve looked for previously. If you’d like to “start fresh,” private browsing can let you do that.
  • Making sure you’re getting the lowest price: Online retailers may vary prices partially based on data such as your location and browsing history. This is particularly common in the travel industry — that plane fare you’ve eyeballed may jump the next time you look simply because the airline wants to give you an extra kick in the pants to book it. Or if you live in a higher-income area, you may be shown a higher price than someone who’s looking at the same product across town. Private browsing can level the playing field.
  • Override usage limits: Maybe you want to read another article on a news site, but you’ve hit your free-story limit for the month. Or perhaps you’re prohibited from downloading more than one set of grocery coupons. Private browsing may help you circumvent these limits if the sites use cookies to remember whether you’ve been there before.
  • Log in to linked accounts at once: If you have several accounts on the same site, you can use private browsing to bring them both up at once. I can use private browsing to check my work and personal Gmail accounts simultaneously — otherwise, I have to sign out of one to check the other, or use two different browsers, such as Safari and Chrome.

Limitations of Private Browsing

Private browsing can help keep your digital tracks covered, but only to an extent. There are several ways your personal data is still up for grabs, especially if you do a lot of web browsing away from home. Here are three common limitations of private browsing:

Spyware and keyloggers

Private browsing won’t protect you from a range of malicious programs that could already be installed on your computer. The most common type, spyware, is typically installed without your knowledge. It can collect your personal data and even change your computer settings without your permission. You may have even installed it yourself, thinking you were installing something else — perhaps free software, or even what you thought was anti-virus software.

One particularly insidious type of spyware, keyloggers, records every character you type, whether it’s a chat session, an email, or the credit card number or password you just typed while making a purchase.

External network monitoring

A private browsing session will not protect you from anyone who is monitoring your activity externally. For example, even if you used a private browsing session to research an upcoming vacation while you were on the clock at work, your network administrator could still see what you were doing. The same goes if you’re online at school, the library, or the like — your requests are first funneled through those networks.

You’re not completely in the clear at home, either. Your computer accesses the web via your Internet service provider, and then its requests are funneled through the server of the website you’re trying to access. You can be tracked at both of these points.

Data theft via public networks

Just as private browsing can’t hide your tracks from the tech guys at work, it does nothing to keep your not-so-friendly neighborhood hacker from using a few simple tricks to gather your data when you use public Wi-Fi. Technically an external monitoring threat, data theft is a major risk for anyone using a public network to hop online.

There are a couple of main ways hackers can get your data when you connect online: One is by setting up their own legitimate-looking network and then recording everything you do once you connect. Another is by using “sniffing” software that extracts data while it’s traveling to or from the public router.

What Can Data Thieves Do With my Information?

If data theft sounds like your biggest concern after reading the previous section, you’re probably right. The Pew Research Center recently found that 18% of Americans recently reported that they’d had personal data stolen online. And data thieves can do a lot of damage, depending on the information they receive, including:

  • Going on shopping sprees: When someone has your credit card number, they’re usually going to use it, and fast — perhaps before you even realize it’s been stolen. If they have your banking information, they can quickly drain your accounts.
  • Committing tax, employment, or medical fraud: Someone who has your Social Security number and other information could file a fraudulent tax return in hopes of snagging a refund. They could also file for unemployment benefits in your name — this recently happened to a friend of mine, who discovered it was startlingly common as she talked to officials at the unemployment office. Data thieves can even use your insurance information to get medical care or prescriptions.
  • Open new accounts in your name: Certainly, a data thief may apply for new credit cards in your name, but the possibilities are endless — they could also open bank accounts and bounce checks, apply for loans, and even open up new utility accounts as you. All of these things could trash your credit score.

Beyond Private Browsing: Other Ways to Protect Yourself

So if private browsing can’t keep you completely secure, what can? Unfortunately, there are no guarantees of total security in the Internet age, but there are several things you can do to help keep your data safe online.

Develop common-sense digital habits

One of the best defenses you have online is a healthy skepticism. Don’t download anything from a website you’re unsure of, click on links or attachments in suspicious emails, or click buttons on questionable pop-up windows. You should be particularly wary of free programs or files. All of these tactics are particularly helpful for avoiding spyware.

Similarly, the easiest and most obvious way to stay safe from data theft is to avoid using public Wi-Fi or any network that allows unfettered access. If you do need to surf the web at Starbucks, try to refrain from shopping, online banking, or anything else that could expose more sensitive data. And be sure to verify the network’s name before you connect, so that you don’t unwittingly hop onto a hacker’s similarly named network.

Keep your system updated and on guard

You know those updates that you keep ignoring because it’s not a convenient time to restart your phone or computer? Stop ignoring them! The same goes for updates to any software you have installed. Developers use updates to “patch” security vulnerabilities, so it’s crucial to stay current.

Your computer also has a built-in firewall that can help prevent some threats, but it can only do that if it’s on. Make sure by double-checking in your security settings.

Finally, a good anti-virus program can scan your computer for existing threats and prevent you from downloading new ones. Choose a program from a reputable dealer or site — unfortunately, some shadier-seeming free software is really just a front for spyware — and keep it updated.

Double-check for encryption

If you’re using a public network and insist on doing online shopping, banking, or something else that could leave important data vulnerable, pay careful attention to data encryption.

You want to see “https” instead of just “http” at the beginning of a URL when you’re on a site where you will input any potentially sensitive information. You may also see a green bar pop up by the site’s URL with a lock icon. This means the site is the real deal and that your information will be encrypted when it’s sent, so that hackers can’t see it.

Check out the HTTPS Everywhere browser extension, available for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, which automatically bolsters your security on any HTTPS-enabled site.

Use a virtual private network

Even if you use private browsing, anyone who has access to the network you use to connect to the Internet can potentially see what you’re doing and pin it to your Internet Protocol (IP) address, which can potentially be traced back to your router — and your address.

A VPN, or virtual private network, lets an external server act as a buffer between you and the Internet. Now, anyone who’s watching can only see the VPN’s IP address. Perhaps more importantly, your data is encrypted going to and from the VPN server.

You can use a VPN at home or on the road, so this is probably one of the safest ways to surf if you really need to use public Wi-Fi. Several VPN providers such as Private Internet Access or TorGuard will provide their layer of extra security for less than $10 a month — money well spent for anyone who is concerned about cybertheft.

Switch to a privacy-conscious search engine

Sure, you can use privacy mode in your regular browser, but there are options that offer more robust protection. One is DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t retain any data on its users.

That means that if you search for a particular term, you get the same exact results as another person who searches for that term. It may not sound particularly startling, but since our search results are typically influenced by our previous search history, location, and other data, it can be a big deal.

Consider a service that guards against identity theft

A service such as LifeLock can help proactively protect you from identity theft in several ways: They monitor your credit reports, check public records for any new use of your Social Security number, and guard against online account takeovers, among other things. (They offer low-tech methods, too, including lost-wallet protection.)

And if your data is stolen, you’ll typically receive up to $1 million in identity-theft insurance, as well as access to experts who can help make things right. If you’re interested in such a service, check out The Simple Dollar’s guide to the best credit monitoring services.

Don’t Depend on Private Browsing for Online Privacy

Private browsing can help you keep your browsing history under wraps, but only in limited circumstances. It works best to cover your tracks if you’re concerned about other users of your computer or smartphone gaining access to your logged-in accounts or search history, or as a simple safeguard on a public machine. And in the event someone steals your laptop, they won’t have access to stored usernames and passwords if you’ve been using private browsing.

However, remember that private browsing is no guarantee against other kinds of snooping, whether it’s via spyware or monitoring from network administrators or others who can access your browsing history externally. It also provides little protection from online data theft, particularly when you send personal information over vulnerable public Wi-Fi networks.

That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to cybertheft if you need to buy some shoes while sipping your latte at your favorite coffee shop. However, there are steps you can take to lessen your chances. Those include making sure you send data only via sites with robust encryption, double-checking that you’re connecting to the right network, and even considering a virtual private network or identity-theft service for another layer of security.

Saundra Latham

Contributing Writer

Saundra Latham is a personal finance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The Simple Dollar, Business Insider, USA Today, The Motley Fool, Livestrong and elsewhere.