Let’s be honest: There’s probably a few things you’ve been looking at online that you don’t want anyone to know about.
Whether you’re secretly searching for a gift for someone who uses your computer, planning a surprise event or just looking at websites you’d prefer to keep to yourself, there are plenty of reasons to want to keep your web history in the shadows.
There a few different ways of doing this, and they all depend on who it is you want to hide your history from. But here’s the thing: The websites you visit in private browsing modes can still be tied back to you. Even if the people on your computer can’t see which websites you’ve been visiting, your Internet provider and the websites you’re visiting can. Here’s how it works.
What private browsing modes do
Safari, Google Chrome, Firefox,Opera and Internet Explorer all have private browsing modes you can use to make sure the websites you visit don’t appear in your browsing history. Typically, your browser will record a running log of each website you visit and store information about what you entered into search and information forms on websites.
So, if you found an awesome T-shirt on an online store, but can’t remember which store it was or what you searched to find it in the first place, your browser will store that information so you can use it later.
Your browser will also store cookies from websites, which are small files of data that help tailor a website to you and your computer. Whenever you go to a website that already has you logged in, remembers what you were last looking at or displays ads that eerily fit what you’ve been searching for, that’s a cookie at work.
When you enable private browsing modes, you are telling your browser not to record which websites you’re visiting, and telling it not to use or download any cookies. So, if you set up an account with an online jewelry store to find an engagement ring for your girlfriend, and she uses the same computer as you, she won’t be able to see any of that if you only do it in a private browsing mode.
However, there are a few security flaws that can leak this information back onto your browser. In 2010, professors at Stanford University found that while Firefox won’t record your history during a private browsing session, it still records which sites on which you’ve installed SSL certificates (which enable secure, encrypted information exchange indicated by the “https” in front of the URL) and allowed specific permissions.
So if you download an SSL certificate from a website or told that site specifically to stop displaying pop-ups and downloading cookies, all of that information is still stored on Firefox.
Also, if you log into your Google account in Chrome’s Incognito mode, the browser will record your history and remember your cookies, which effectively ends the private session.
Private browsing modes — by the admission of their developers — only try to hide your history from other users of the same computer, and there are still ways to get around that. If you’re looking for something that prevents anyone from tracking your browsing history, a normal browser isn’t going to cut it on its own.
What private browsing modes don’t do
Even if the private browsing mode doesn’t keep a record of which sites you visit, it’s still possible to track all of that information with your Internet Protocol (IP) address. Your IP address is both an identifier and a locator, telling the Internet who you are and from where in the world and on a computer network you’re connecting to the Internet.
Any device that can access the Internet has an IP address, which is the Internet’s version of the return address on an mailed envelope. Whenever you send a request over the Internet, your IP address is included.
Because every request sent over the Internet is tied to an IP address, anyone with the capacity to monitor which IP address sends requests to a server can figure out where you’ve been going online and to whom you’ve been sending messages. That’s how the NSA metadata collection program worked in a nutshell: The agency collected information about which IP addresses were sending requests to each other with the goal of figuring out the composition of terrorist networks.
Private browsing settings can prevent your history from being recorded on your browser, but they cannot prevent your IP address from being tied to those requests. Your Internet provider, law enforcement much more local than the NSA and any website that can install tracking cookies or access your search history can track those requests. The federal government can legally request your Internet history, too.
Also, anything you download and any bookmarks you make during a private browsing session will remain on your computer. Expecting those to go away when the session is over is like expecting a package you got in the mail to disappear just because you threw out its box. The file is now on your hard drive, and it will take a lot more than deleting your browser history to get rid if it.
There’s no way to avoid using your IP address in an Internet request. However, there are ways to hide it.
How to privately browse
Tor, previously known as The Onion Router, is a network that allows users to surf the web anonymously by routing your traffic through a series of computers before connecting you with your intended destination.
You can find a comprehensive explanation of the technology behind Tor here, but essentially, the only computer that knows the start and end points of the request is yours. All of this together makes it so your request cannot be tied directly to your IP address, and even the NSA has difficulty getting into the system.
No system is perfect, and there could be a security gap the NSA is exploiting that we don’t know about (remember Heartbleed?). But Tor has been around since 2005, and it’s done its job pretty well for the past decade.
DuckDuckGo, a private search engine that doesn’t store your personal information, won’t send any of it to the websites you access through its service. While the websites will still know you visited them through your IP address, it won’t send the search phrases you used to them.
This will prevent third-party cookies from associating certain phrases with you, and using DuckDuckGo will let you search the Internet without a filter constructed from previous browsing and information.
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Article source: http://mashable.com/2014/07/21/how-private-browsing-works/