For years, most popular internet browsers have included options to search and visit websites in “private” modes. These options are now available in Roe v. They may be seen as vital tools for some in the wake of Wade’s death.
But according to some privacy experts, clicking on the “private” browsing option may not protect you as much as you think.
These options have different names – Private Browsing in Safari and Firefox and Incognito mode in Chrome – but the functionality is similar in each. In these special modes, the selected browser does not keep track of sites visited, cached pages, or stored information such as credit card numbers and addresses. It also prevents information from sessions from being stored in the cloud.
While using these options adds a certain level of protection online, privacy experts say it’s insufficient to prevent user tracking altogether, potentially limiting the protections it can provide to women in this new legal environment.
Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Surveillance Project and a friend in New York, said, “We must admit that switching in a private mode often does little to prevent third-party monitoring, and particularly law enforcement monitoring. ” said. York University School of Law.
As designed, private browsing modes are best suited to protect your web activity from others using the same device, according to experts, but that doesn’t do much beyond offering local shielding.
“For example, it can be useful for trans and queer children who are worried about being tracked by their parents, and for people who may be in a situation where they cannot safely separate their computer from other people who have access to their browser history,” says Fox Cahn.
Private mode can also help reduce tracking between websites. For example, in Chrome, users are told: “Websites see you as a new user and don’t know who you are unless you’re signed in.”
“People choose to surf the web privately for many reasons,” said Parisa Tabriz, vice president of Chrome Browser. “Some people want to protect their privacy or remove certain activities from their browsing history on shared or borrowed devices. Incognito mode helps in these use cases.”
Often while a person is surfing the web, companies use tracking devices known as cookies to track digital activity from one site to another for better targeted advertising. Depending on the browser and user preferences, private browsing mode may reduce cross-site information sharing. But with some browsers, users should know how to select these additional options beyond just choosing private mode.
For example, Safari has a default Intelligent Tracking Prevention feature that limits cross-site tracking while ensuring sites continue to function normally. The “Prevent Cross-Site Tracking” and “Block all cookies” options are additional steps to protect users, but these features are separate from private mode. Meanwhile, Chrome advises users that they should choose to block third-party cookies, even in Incognito mode. Firefox added new default features last year, including “total cookie protection” to stop users from being tracked on the internet, and “smart blocking” to allow third-party logins via sites like Facebook or Twitter. tracing.
Private modes also have limited effectiveness when it comes to IP addresses that connect to the device and can be used to geo-locate the user.
“Whether you are in privacy mode or not, your IP address should always be known to the receiver, because when your browser sends a request to receive data, the server receiving the request needs to know where to send that data back,” said Andrew Reifers, associate professor at the University of Washington School of Information. The service provider may also log a user’s online activity, regardless of the browser privacy setting.
Some browsers offer additional protections to address this. Safari has a “Hide IP Address” option separate from private browsing mode, which when enabled sends user browser information to two different entities; one of them gets the IP address but not the website visited and the other one gets the website but not the IP address. This way, it also doesn’t have all the information about a user. Other browsers also have options to mask IP addresses, such as VPN extensions or “Disable Geo IP” features that prevent browsers from sharing a user’s location with websites.
Online browsing is stored in two places: on the local computer and on the sites visited. For example, when a user in private browsing mode goes to Facebook, there will be no record of that visit stored on their device, but a record of that visit stored in their Facebook account logs and Facebook’s ads analytics.
The records users leave online with or without enabling private browsing options create much uncertainty about how this data can be used as evidence by law enforcement in states that criminalize abortion. Tech companies said little about how they would handle such requests. Groups that support digital rights and reproductive freedoms are now warning people in these states to protect their digital footprints when searching for abortion information and resources online, and share tips on how to do so.
Also, if someone is working on a corporate or school laptop, private browsing mode won’t do much. “If you have a computer managed by someone else, it’s really not possible to have privacy with that person,” said Mozilla CTO Eric Rescorla. “If your computer is owned by an employer, it can put any kind of monitoring software on any computer they want and measure everything you do. So, it won’t protect you against it, but hardly anything.”
Google Chrome also warns users that Incognito Mode may not provide full protection in these situations. “While in Incognito Mode, your activity may still be visible to the websites you visit, your employer or school, or your internet service provider. We make this clear when turning on Incognito Mode,” Tabriz said.
Users should also note that the protections offered in private mode are specific to web browsing only, leaving any activity in smartphone apps vulnerable. No matter how well private browsing mode works at maintaining user activity, nowhere else can it help. “Most of the apps we use don’t have an incognito mode built in,” Reifers said. “You really don’t know what this app is hiding.”
Beyond enabling private browsing modes and specifying additional privacy options that companies offer in their settings, there are some additional steps users can take to maximize digital privacy.
A VPN or virtual private network hides an IP address to make a user more anonymous online, effectively protecting both who and where the user is. “A good first step would be to use a private browsing mode and a VPN together,” Rescorla said. Said.
But using a VPN potentially allows the VPN operator to access your browsing activity. “Many of them will sell this information or will certainly present it to the police if they issue a search warrant,” warns Fox Cahn.
According to privacy experts, internet users may also consider switching to a browser like Tor, which is a secure and anonymous option that uses multiple intermediary servers to completely block tracking activity from any one server.
First of all, experts stress that internet users should be aware that online activity is not fundamentally private, regardless of browser settings. And while clearing browsing history and emptying cookie caches makes data recovery difficult for third parties, it’s still not impossible with some forensic tools and guarantees.
Fox Cahn stresses that those concerned with data privacy, such as abortion seekers, should take as many steps as possible, including purchasing a new non-trackable device or using services like Tor. “It’s bulky, but this provides a lot more protection,” he said. “You have to remember that all this can do is reduce the amount of risk. None of it is absolutely perfect.”
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