Private browsing may not protect you as much as you think

But clicking the “private” browsing option might not protect you as much as you think, some privacy experts say.

These options have different names — Private Browsing on Safari and Firefox, and Incognito mode on Chrome — but the functionality is similar on each. In these private modes, the chosen browser does not keep a log of sites visited, cached pages, or saved information like credit card numbers and addresses. It also prevents information from sessions from being stored in the cloud.

Although using these options does add a certain level of protection online, privacy experts say it stops short of preventing the user from being tracked altogether — potentially limiting the protections it may afford women in this new legal landscape.

“We have to recognize that oftentimes simply toggling on a private mode does very little to prevent third-party tracking and especially law enforcement tracking,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and a fellow at the New York University School of Law.

What does private browser mode do?

As designed, private browsing modes are best suited for protecting your web activity from other people who use the same device, according to experts, but it does little beyond offering that local shield.

“It can be helpful, for example, for trans and queer kids who are worried about being tracked by their parents and for people who may be in a situation where they can’t securely separate their computer from other people who can access the browser history,” says Fox Cahn.

The private mode can also help reduce tracking across websites. On Chrome, for example, users are told: “Websites see you as a new user and won’t know who you are, as long as you don’t sign in.”

“People choose to browse the web privately for many reasons,” said Parisa Tabriz, VP of Chrome Browser. “Some people wish to protect their privacy on shared or borrowed devices, or to exclude certain activities from their browsing histories. Incognito helps with these use cases.”

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Usually when a person browses online, companies will use tracking devices known as cookies to keep up with digital activity from one site to the next for better targeted advertising. Depending on the browser and user choices, private browsing mode can reduce that cross-site information sharing. But with some browsers, users must know to select these additional options, beyond simply opting for private mode.

Safari, for example, has a default Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature, which limits cross site tracking while enabling sites to continue to function normally. Its “Prevent Cross-Site Tracking” and “Block all cookies” options are extra steps to protect users, but these features are separate from private mode. Chrome, meanwhile, advises users that they have to choose to block third-party cookies, even in Incognito mode. Firefox added new default features last year, including “total cookie protection,” to stop users from being tracked around the internet, as well as “smart block” to allow for third-party logins through sites like Facebook or Twitter while still working to prevent tracking.

Private modes are also limited in their effectiveness when it comes to IP addresses, which tie to the device and can be used to geo-locate the user.

“Whether you’re in privacy mode or not, your IP address always has to be known by the recipient because when your browser sends the request to get data, the server that’s receiving the request needs to know where to send that data back to,” said Andrew Reifers, associate teaching professor at the University of Washington Information School. An internet service provider can also record a user’s online activity regardless of their browser privacy setting.

Some browsers do offer additional protections to address this. Safari has a “Hide IP Address” selection separate from private browsing mode that, when enabled, sends user browser information to two different entities, with one getting the IP address but not the website being visited and the other getting the website but not IP address. In this way, neither has all the information on a user. Other browsers also have options to mask IP addresses, such as VPN extensions or “disable Geo IP” capabilities that stop browsers from sharing a user’s location with websites.

What do private browser modes not protect?

Online browsing is stored in two places: on the local computer and by the sites visited. When a user in private browsing mode goes to Facebook, for example, there will not be a stored record of that visit on their device, but there will be a stored record of that visit in their Facebook account records and by Facebook’s ad analytics.

The record users leave online, with or without enabling private browsing options, creates much uncertainty around how that data could be used as evidence by law enforcement in states that criminalize abortions. Tech companies have said little about how they would…

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