Everyone searches for things online which they wouldn’t want others to know about. Whether you’re looking for a gift for someone, planning an event or simply looking at personal things, there can be a number of reasons why you would want to keep it private. While there are a number of ways you can keep your browser history private, it would depend on who you wish to hide it from. But there is one thing you should keep in mind; websites you visit in private browsing mode can still be led back to you. While those who use your computer won’t know which sites you’ve been on, your internet provider as well as the website you’re visiting can link it back to you.
While private browsing modes hide your history from others who use the same computer, it will still be tied to your computer. While all your browsers have the ability to switch on the private browsing mode, all it does is make sure that the websites don’t appear in your website history. Normally, your browser would record a log of every website visited and store information which you would have entered on websites.
Your browser also stores cookies from websites which are smaller files of data which help tailor a website to you and your computer. Cookies make it possible for ads to be displayed to you on websites according to what you have been searching for. When private browsing is enabled however, you are telling your browser to not record anything; not keep a track of websites you are visiting and not download any cookies.
There is however security flaws which can make it possible for all information to be linked back to your browser. In 2010, Stanford University professors found that while Firefox wouldn’t record your history while enabled in private browsing, it would still record sites on which SSL certificates have been installed. Thus, by downloading an SSL certificate from a website, that information would be stored in Firefox. The Incognito mode in Google Chrome too records your history and remembers cookies which tend to end the private browsing.
Thus, the private browsing mode simply hides your browser history from others using the same computer. If what you’re looking for is to prevent anyone else from tracking your browser history, using a normal browser won’t be enough.
The private browsing mode makes it possible to track information about sites visited through your IP address. This address is an identifier and a locator which tells the internet who you are and where you’re from. Thus any device which has access to your IP address will know where you are located. Since every request made on the internet is associated with an IP address, anyone who can monitor these addresses would be able to figure out what websites you’ve been using and who you have been interacting with. This is also similar to how the NSA metadata collection system works.
Private browsing modes thus cannot prevent your IP address being tied to any request you make over the internet. Your internet provider, law enforcement and federal government too can legally request your internet browsing history if they wish to see what you’ve been up to.
Furthermore, any downloaded or bookmarks made during this mode will also remain on your computer. Thus, expecting them to disappear once the session is over is an expectation which will not be fulfilled.
While it isn’t possible to get rid of your IP address with the requests you make, there are ways of hiding it. You can make use of The Onion Router which was previously known as Tor which is a network allowing users to make use of the internet anonymously by routing the traffic through a number of computers before connecting to the desired connection. The only computer in this manner which knows the start and end points of the request is your computer. All of this makes it difficult for your request to be tied directly to your IP making it difficult for the NSA to track as well.
There isn’t any system which is perfect and there is a likelihood that there is a security gap which exploits NSA and does exist but we may not know about it. Tor has been around since 2005 and has been doing a good job since them.
DuckDuckGo is yet another search engine which doesn’t store private information and doesn’t send websites you access through its service. While the website will know you visited it through your IP, it won’t know what you searched for. This will prevent third party cookies from using these phrases you searched for and the search engine will allow you to browse the internet without any filter.