In Cyber Safety, The Digital World

The Great Myth of Private Browsing

The concept of private Internet browsing is being able to tour and view the Internet without having to worry that one’s surfing and viewing activities may be subject to the judgment and opinion of someone else. Private browsing is quite attractive as a tool to anyone who has looked at – or plans to look at – online content that others might not agree with or would have a negative opinion about.

While that often brings up visions of someone looking at risqué websites, in reality there are many websites and sources of content that people would like to explore without having to be subject to the opinions of their family members, workmates and peers or worse, hackers and marketers.

Is Private Browsing Really a Myth?

With the advent of traffic monitoring, Internet statistics, and in-bound traffic management, the average person’s whereabouts in digital land are ripe material for marketers and business types looking to push their own goods and services or to sell that information to others looking to do the same. Further, the workplace has become so hypersensitive about how people interact with each other in an appropriate way. Anything that even looks like inappropriate behavior can land an employee on discipline row or, worse, job termination.

Unfortunately, people are generally ignorant about the ability to keep their browsing private. In fact, in many families, tech savvy kids know far more about how private browsing works than their parents who bought them the computer, no surprise. Yet a myth continues in general computer-use land that, when activated, private browsing will fully protect a user from prying eyes. Here is the reality.

What Does Private Browsing Do (Or Not)?

First, however, there’s a couple of facts to consider about how private browsing works and doesn’t work. The primary thing to remember is that a website history can still be connected to a viewer, even if anyone using this single computer can’t automatically see what is being visited. Both the Internet service provider as well as the website itself can see who is viewing or accessing the content. The private browsing mode merely hides the history trail from anyone using the browser to see the last websites visited. It does not erase the address of the computer used to visit a website on that website’s tracking system. It also doesn’t erase the orders and instructions of where to go that a computer sends to the Internet service provider’s databases. So there is still a trail; it’s just not immediately visible to the next person using the computer itself.

Second, all major browser software packages now offer private browsing as a feature a user can turn on when operating the program in a computer or tablet. If not turned on, the browser client adds every website visited during a session to a running log file. That record will stay in place for easy return visits, unless deleted. This normally gets saved to the cache folder of a browser on the computer. It includes the site addresses as well as any information entered into the given website as input. The idea here was to make it easy for users to find their way back to a preferred site if they didn’t proactively save the address. The private browser feature wipes out this log-saving detail on the local computer only. It doesn’t affect anyone else’s logs.

Third, cookies are entirely independent of private browsing. These data files are files that record specific custom features a user prefers so that the next visit to the same website works better for the user. They also tell a marketer or business a whole lot about a user’s interests. Cookies pile up in a computer by the hundreds if not prevented by turning cookies off.  A good example of a cookie at work is on eBay or Amazon. You visit the site the first time, and it provides you products when you commit a search. You visit the site a second time, and it automatically offers you similar products to what you searched before without being asked. That’s because the website read the cookie data on your computer.

Fourth, your site history can still be read through other files. Whenever a user goes to a secure site, it deposits a secure certificate on the user’s computer. This allows for and protects secure transmissions with a given website. However, to any other user it gives a very clear identification what website the person was visiting as well.

Fifth, logging into personal accounts with any given website negates the power of private browsing, at least for that website. That’s because the website itself is now tracking your preferences. So even if one went to Amazon, denied cookies, and used private browsing, similar search ads would appear as soon as the person logs into their Amazon account for personal shopping management.

What is Private Browsing for ISPs?

Internet service providers (ISPs) tend to be the first place anyone with a legal subpoena would look when desiring to look at a person’s website history. While the computer would still eventually be searched as well, that tips off the user to start destroying things. Instead, quite a bit of evidence is often gathered without the user knowing ahead of time by contacting the ISP. The same principle works for cellphone providers. Not only can ISPs give information on what websites are visited, but they can also provide details on location, time, frequency, the specific viewed content, and anything downloaded and saved in a local computer, including the folder destination. Little surprise, when a party eventually does come looking for the local computer unit, they know exactly where to look in the hard drive for additional evidence.

This ability to track in private browsing so much stems from the fact that every time a user sends an instruction to an ISP, it also provides a specific address sequence that the ISP uses and saves. The US federal government, for example, tapped into this resource through the National Security Agency (NSA) to determine connections between individuals and groups to regularly determine homeland security threats and potential risks. The data, when collected and compiled, can be displayed to reviewers spatially, defining connections between content, users, and other parties to determine relationships as well as identify new targets of investigation. The US military uses such an approach regularly to find networks of enemies and where they are located or operating from; it truly is a means of monitoring the “grid.”

Private Browsing is Not as Good as Prevention

In summary, while private browsing may seem to offer computer users quite a bit of protection, the benefits are far less than desired. It’s a far better path for people to practice appropriate Internet use on a regular basis for different environments. For example, when at work, one should never assume that anything done on a work computer is private and can’t be monitored. Companies regularly monitor their employees to make sure they aren’t doing something that can get the company sued. When at school, WiFi networks are notoriously wide open for anyone to watch what someone is doing digitally. Hackers regularly practice their skills in such environments because there are lots of people using a system and lots of them don’t practice any kind of safe Internet behavior on an open WiFi connection. Even home usage should be protected with at least a firewall router ideally or security software at the least. The number one reason people get themselves in trouble with browsing behavior is arrogance, and a software can’t fix that. People need to police themselves better, avoiding big headaches and consequences.

If you’re concerned about what your child might be getting up to when they’re online, some software packages are able to detect any potential harmful danger that may come their way.

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