Private Browsing – Is It Really in Private?

Illustration: “The Search Giant” © Julie Fisher

There is ample evidence that we no longer browse in private on our computers. Advertisements appropriate to our interests appear ‘miraculously’ on social media pages.

When we search for say, a locksmith, locksmiths in our hometown top the list. We get a steady stream of emails that match our demographic. Who gained access to our personal information?
This screenshot from Lightbeam by Mozilla tells it all.

LIgthbeam screenshot - in private

This user visited 31 newsrooms / commercial websites on Firefox during a 6-hour period. The sites he chose shared his browsing habits with a further 131 third party ones, some of whom may have contacted him later. Let us examine this information through a closer lens. The 31 newsrooms / commercial websites he deliberately visited are bright white. The 131 in shadows are the third parties he never gave permission to know what he was doing. Could in-private browsing have shielded him? and why should he have to actively opt-out of this? More importantly, would he have been anonymous on all the gray sites too.

Private Browsing, What It Is, What it Does, and Where It Fails

When you go onto the internet and visit a website without control over your privacy protection, your browser records the event, collects your cookies, and remembers what you entered onto forms. It also remembers the passwords you used, the searches you made and caches each page you visited so it loads faster in the future. Anything you download, and any bookmarks you place remain on your computer unless you deliberately erase them. How many of us have the energy, let alone the inclination to go back and delete the information we want to keep private, especially at the end of a busy day? Anybody with access to your computer and browser can retrieve this type of information by typing a letter into the browser address bar and seeing which website addresses come up. They could also open your browsing history, and view the list. This is one reason police with search warrants always examine computer hard drives.


Private browsing can prevent a user’s computer or browser storing the information mentioned and some browsers are better than others by default. We compare five main browsers in the next section. All of these have the same intrinsic weakness. This weakness is they cannot prevent a third party site from retaining your information. Anybody with access to your IP address or other linking point can find out which websites you have been visiting and how you behaved, without you even knowing this is happening.

The Most Known Browsers – How Private are They Really?

In theory, private browsing means you can surf the Internet without leaving a trace. Ideally this means not storing the websites you visit, not saving the files you download in temp, not remembering the information you enter on forms, and not keeping a record of your searches. Always take advantage of this when you use an unprotected public computer, or visit an internet café.

Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla Firefox promises that it ‘won’t keep any browser history, search history, download history, web form history, cookies, or temporary internet files in Private Browsing mode. However, files you download and bookmarks you make will be kept.” – read more on

To activate private browsing in Firefox: Hold Ctrl+Shift+P down together, or click “Start Private Browsing” from the tools menu.

Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer states that Private Browsing “helps prevent Internet Explorer from storing data about your browsing session. This includes cookies, temporary Internet files, history, and other data. Toolbars and extensions are disabled by default.”

To activate private browsing in Internet Explorer: Press Ctrl+Shift+P keys or choose “InPrivate Browsing” from Tools menu

Google Chrome

Google Chrome assures users that “pages you view in Private Browsing Window won’t appear in your browser history or search history, and they won’t leave other traces, like cookies, on your computer after you close all open windows. Any files you download or bookmarks you create will be preserved, however.”

To activate private browsing in Chrome: Hold Ctrl+Shift+N down or select “new incognito window” using the wrench icon

Safari for Mac OSX

Safari for Mac OSX Mac users are promised that Safari will not remember the sites you visit or the searches you make.

To activate private browsing in Safari for OSX: Hold Shift+Cmd+N keys at the same time or select Archive -> New Private Window from the menu.

Opera Browser

Opera Browser claims, “If you wish to browse without leaving a trace, for example, if you’re using someone else’s computer or a public one, you can use Private Browsing.

To activate private browsing in Opera: Select “new private tab” from tabs and windows menu or press Ctrl+Shift+N keys at the same time

Is It then Possible to Browse Privately on the Internet?

The private browsing options on Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera may limit the extent of personal data stored on your computer to varying degrees. However, they are unable to – and they do not promise to – keep your browsing private elsewhere. They are unable to prevent the websites themselves and third parties, you visit to track you, the pages you visit and they can add your personal information, like your IP-address to their logs.

Your private information is open to scrutiny at any point in the chain that enables you to interrogate the Internet, send email messages, or log on and transact.


Privafox – a browser with a fair level of privacy by default

Privacore is launching Privafox a new browser with a fair default privacy setting, we added PrivaControl to let you know which third parties are capturing your browsing behaviour. We will tell you each time a third party website wants to log your information. Then it is for you to decide if it is OK.


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"The Search Giant" © Julie Fischer

“The Search Giant” © Julie Fisher


Important: Private Browsing doesn’t make you anonymous on the Internet.