How-to: Use a Web Browser in Private Mode

Mouse imageAnyone using a modern web browser (hang fire for a definition of ‘modern’) should be able to block some online tracking technologies such as flash cookies and web trackers that can covertly share your online activities and history.

However, the chances are you’ve not enabled it. Not because you don’t care about your online privacy, or because you don’t know about private browsing, but because you haven’t discovered how the settings work, particularly if you’ve upgraded lately or use more than one browser.

All the major browsers – Firefox, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer and Safari – now offer advanced privacy settings to varying degrees and standards; but hardly anyone uses them. The implementations of some of these features are at best hidden, at worst needlessly complicated.

However with the rising publicity afforded identity theft, anonymity, and scam-sites, public concerns for online privacy are at least mid-page news, to the extent that more users are fumbling for the advanced privacy controls…

Which consist of two branches; using “private mode” and blocking targeted advertising. To maximise your online privacy, you need both.

Enabling Private Mode
Most browsers offer a private mode, or ‘per session’ browsing, in which most of your browsing activity is not saved or stored on your computer. At the end of your session, cookies, auto-complete, searches and downloads are automatically deleted, passwords and your browsing history (sites visited) are not saved.

Private Mode is good in that it leaves no trail behind you on the machine for other users to find. Private Mode has limitations however, as it all takes place within your browser.

  • It cannot hide or change your public-facing IP address, by which websites and your internet service provider (ISP) can identify you. If you want anonymised browsing, without revealing your IP address, you need an anonymised connection through a proxy network such as the Onion Routing service Tor, or a paid proxy service.
  • Although the browser stores nothing in Private Mode, it can’t prevent websites, advertisers and ad networks from storing information about your browsing history at their end when you visit.
  • The browser can’t prevent surveillance, keyloggers, or people standing behind you. Anything, that is, that happens outside the web-browser session.

Block Targeted Advertising
Advertisers love the Internet. It is the best means yet invented by man to track his fellow man’s behaviour, through the websites and networks he visits, comments or shops through. Here your browsing history can be mined to present targeted ads.

There are many ways of blocking targeted advertising, the latest of which is a nascent ‘standard’ still being argued over by the different browser teams; the Do Not Track header. The Firefox team describe it as;
“…when you turn on the Do-not-track feature, [your browser] tells every website you visit (as well as their advertisers and other content providers) that you don’t want your browsing behavior tracked.”

The trouble is, websites can ignore this completely. Honouring the Do Not Track order is completely voluntary. So 99% of all sites ignore it. Without binding international legislation, they will continue so to do. The pressures of commerce mean that a voluntary standard will not be effective. You can enable the Do Not Track header, but don’t expect it to work.

What you need instead is a good browser extension, such as Ad-block Plus, which you can have susbscribed to an update list for your browser to block ad sites for you. The ability to manually add exclusions to the list is valuable, if only to block the annoying pop-ups.

Do note that some websites now detect ad-blockers and refuse to admit you until you turn these off. This is the choice of the free market; surf these sites with the ads enabled or go somewhere else.

Further instalments will run through the options to run private browsing for Firefox, Internet Explorer and Google Chrome.

A Note About Browser Versions
Internet Explorer 5 and 6 are not secure. Don’t waste time and effort, upgrade now. Make sure you have Internet Explorer 7, 8 or 9. Firefox is cranking through version numbers like confetti, so get an update or use a stable version of 5.x or 6.x from 2010 onwards and you should have the right features. Chrome is less fussy about version numbers, being on a rolling release, so long as you have automatic updates enabled, you should have all the privacy features in the 2011 releases. AJS

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