‘Private Browsing’ is a unique optional feature built into web browsers, that makes sure Browsing History is not stored, and Cookies are not saved. Once enabled, this ensures that one does not leave any trace with the browser.

In today;’s world when cybersecurity is so essential and sought for, private browsing is must if you using a public machine or sitting in an internet café.

Also, remember that private browsing is only limited to the browser. And anything left on the harddisk or memory is still traceable and vulnerable.

Private Browsing has some nicknames like private mode and incognito mode.

Before knowing more about private browsing, it is essential that we should understand what browsing history and browser cookies are.

What is Browsing History?

A Web Browser is a bridge that connects you to the Internet. Visiting an assortment of websites is a daily activity, which ranges from looking up news, online shopping, internet banking, business activities and much more.

Of course, we want our essential, sensitive data to be private.

Usually, the web browser that you use stores the names of all the web pages that you have visited. It is commonly referred to as ‘Browsing History.’

The browser does this to ensure that you can re-visit a web page easily, without dealing with the trouble of remembering the exact web address or typing it out in your browser’s address bar.

What is a browser Cookie?

The login credentials that you use to access your e-mail, Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, etc., are all stored by the web browser. If you fill up a form on a web-page, the data that was filled into the form is also stored by the web browser.

Such data is stored by the browser using a specially formatted manner, which referred to as ‘Cookies’.

How does Private Browsing work?

Now, all this agreeable if you are the only person using the computer. What if you are sharing the computer with your sibling or friend? What if you are in a business environment, where multiple users use the same machine?

In this case, it does not sound appealing to have your private credentials stored on the browser, easily giving other users access to your accounts.

This is where Private Browsing comes in.

Every web browser comes equipped with this feature but is not used by default. When it is used, the web browser does not store any history of the web pages visited. It also does not store any cookies – so your credentials would be safe from prying users!

The dialog box that usually prompts “Save your password for this site? Yes/No” when you type a set of login credentials, does not even appear. Private Browsing keeps your activities private – no history of accessed web pages and no stored cookies. That does sound good!

Also, when private browsing is enabled, if any files have been downloaded or if any bookmarks are set, the files and bookmarks would remain available even after exiting private browsing mode.

Why does the browser store cookies?

Think about this. You are logging into g-mail using your e-mail id and password. The moment you press the ‘Sign in’ button, the browser does this.

  • Send your credentials via the Internet to the Google server (through numerous routers) to authenticate your credentials
  • Handle the received response.

If the Google server approves of the provided credentials, you would be able to login to your g-mail account; else you would need to fix the supplied credentials. Although this happens in a fraction of a second, a lot of work is done (in milliseconds) by your browser.

When you provide your g-mail login credentials to the browser for the first time, once the Google server approves of it, the browser would prompt a small dialog box with the message “Save your password for this site? Yes/No”. When you click yes, the web browser stores your credentials in the form of cookies.

A cookie is a specially formatted value that stores your e-mail id and password. The next time you wish to access your g-mail account, all you need to do is type ‘www.gmail.com’ in the browser address bar.

The browser would use the stored cookies as your credentials and get you access into your Inbox, without you having to type the credentials.

This is like automating the login process. The browser can store cookies for your other accounts as well – Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, etc.

How to enable Private Browsing on modern web browsers?

Let us see how this is done on three web browsers – Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Microsoft Edge.

Google Chrome

Once you open a Google Chrome browser window, in the top rightmost corner, an icon with three consecutive dots can be seen. When this icon is clicked, a dialog box appears as shown below. One of the options in the dialog box is ‘New incognito window’.

Suggested read: How to clear private data in chrome.

In the following screenshot, this section of interest is highlighted in red.

google chrome private browsing

When that option is selected, a window appears which looks like this. Note the symbol shown within the red box. There is also some notification about what data would be protected and what data would be visible.

google chrome private browsing1

Once you continue browsing, the use of private browsing is indicated by the previously highlighted symbol at the top of the window. In the following screenshot, this is shown by the red box. The keystroke Ctrl+Shift+N can also be used to get a new private window.

google chrome private browsing2

Mozilla Firefox

Once you open a Mozilla Firefox browser window, in the top rightmost corner, an icon with three horizontal lines can be seen. When this icon is clicked, a dialog box appears as shown below. One of the options in the dialog box is ‘New Private Window’.

Suggested read: How to clear private data in firefox

In the following screenshot, this section of interest is highlighted in red.

firefox private browsing

When that option is selected, a window appears which looks like this,

firefox private browsing1

Alternatively, the keystroke Ctrl+Shift+P can also be used to get a private window. There is some text which informs you that browser history and cookies would not be saved, but downloaded files and bookmarks would be saved.

Once you continue browsing, the use of private browsing is indicated by the purple icon at the top of the window. In the following screenshot, this is shown by the red box.

firefox private browsing2

Microsoft Edge

Once you open a Microsoft Edge browser window, in the top rightmost corner, an icon with three consecutive dots can be seen. When this icon is clicked, a dialog box appears as shown below. One of the options in the dialog box is ‘New Private Window’.

In the following screenshot, this section of interest is highlighted in red.

edge private browsing

When this option is clicked, a window appears which looks like the screenshot shown below. Here also, Ctrl+Shift+P keystroke would open a private browsing window.

edge private browsing1

Unlike Firefox, there are no messages here about what data gets stored and what does not get stored in private mode. When web pages are accessed, in the left top corner, a blue area with the message ‘InPrivate indicates that private browsing is currently in use.

This is shown in red in the screenshot shown below.

edge private browsing2

Similarly, other standard web browsers like Safari, Opera, etc., also offer their unique versions of private browsing.

When can Private Browsing be used to the fullest?

When you know for sure, you do not wish your browsing history to be saved and your sensitive information like login credentials for various websites to remain private, you can choose to use private browsing.

You would probably encounter this situation when you are using a work computer, a friend’s computer, a public computer or any computer from an untrusted source for that matter.

Are there any limitations to Private Browsing?

There are caveats!

Some websites do not function as expected when the browser runs in Private Browsing mode. For example, Netflix can stream videos only when the web browser is not running in Private Browsing mode.

When you use a web browser with Private Browsing enabled, the feature only protects your credentials from other users who use the same computer and hides your browsing history.

If on a home network, your Internet Service Provider can still know what websites you visit on the Internet, because of the web page requests made by your web browser.

If on an office network, your System Administrator will also come to know about the web pages that have been visited by you.

Also, if any illegal activity has been performed on a computer using Private Browsing mode of a web browser, information about the action performed can be obtained from the computer’s hard disk using Digital Forensics techniques.

If you genuinely wish to hide your activity from the Internet Service Provider or the System Administrator, then the technology called VPN, which is expanded as ‘Virtual Private Network’ should be used.

Do people use Private Browsing mode?

The Mozilla Firefox team ran some tests on their technology to find out how much their users utilized the private browsing feature on their web browser.

High usage was observed around 12 pm, which is mostly lunchtime and a little after 12 am. Most people continued browsing in private mode for about 10 minutes, after which they switched to regular browsing mode.

Conclusion

Although Private Browsing seems like a small feature in web browsers, the activity performed by them is indeed an interesting one. Private Browsing efficiently guards data privacy when required – browser history is not saved, and cookies are not stored.

Are you excited to explore this feature in web browsers? If yes, kindly ensure that ethics and morality go hand-in-hand with privacy. Stay safe on the Internet and Happy Browsing!

‘Private Browsing' is a unique optional feature built into web browsers, that makes sure Browsing History is not stored and Cookies are not saved. Once enabled, this ensures that one does not leave any trace with the browser.