What is Private Browsing? How to Use it on Any Browser

  • By David Lukic
  • May 27, 2022

What is Private Browsing

Private browsing is an option that's available on every web browser without the need to upgrade to a premium product. This feature allows users to use search terms without concerns that other users on the same device or account might discover them. There are many instances where this makes sense. For example, a person might want to research a medical or psychological condition confidentially. Private browsing can also be beneficial when researching gifts using a device or account that the recipient can access. Finally, private browsing can enhance the search experience by allowing a person to use search terms without then being bombarded with recommendations based on the current search the next time they log on.

Private browsing options help to keep online activities a little more personal. Of course, private browsing has its limitations. It does not allow users to stay completely anonymous online. It should also not be seen as a license to conduct illegal activities online.

What is Private Browsing?

When a user selects private browsing mode, a new window that is considered a separate session from any concurrent browser windows is activated. The private browsing window will not store a history of search terms used, sites visited, videos watched, or online forums accessed. In addition, cookies are not stored. Cookies are small pieces of text that act as codes sent to browsers by every website that is visited. The purpose of cookies is to enhance the user experience by allowing a site to remember details about browsing interactions to create a more personalized interface. Cookies also save username and password combinations saving time when you revisit the same sites so you don’t have to log in every time. 

When to Use Private Browsing and its Limitations

What is the private browsing mode used for? Private browsing can be used any time there is a desire to make an internet search and usage history confidential. The benefit is that anyone accessing the same device will not be able to view any records of a private browsing session. This is ideal for searching for information about a medical condition, shopping for a gift for a loved one, or preventing websites from curating content based on past searches. There are also some specific scenarios where private browsing can actually help to keep confidential information more secure.

When using public computers at places like libraries, school computer labs, or hotels, private browsing can stop passwords and browsing history from being accessed by strangers. Many people also use the "hack" of logging into private browsing when shopping for the cheapest travel accommodations online. Sites that offer to book airfare and hotels often use dynamic pricing that feeds a shopper's search history into an algorithm to present "hiked" fares. Private browsing can be a way to get around dynamic pricing to get the true lowest price possible. Of course, none of this means that all online activity conducted during a private browsing session is untraceable.

Understanding the Limitations of Private Browsing

Online browsing activity is still technically viewable and traceable. First, at least some information from a private browsing session is likely to be stored within the local computer. When using a network or proxy server, browsing activity still needs to pass through servers. This means that it can be tracked and stored by third parties. This is important information for anyone considering using private browsing on a work computer to know about. In fact, corporate network and system administrators can easily trace and track activity from private browsing sessions. In addition, government and investigative agencies are fully capable of accessing browsing activity done during a private browsing session. Finally, internet service providers (ISPs) are capable of logging user activity on machines connected to home networks. There's also the risk that someone on a shared device is using anything from a keylogger to a parental-control tracker to monitor every keystroke.

How to Use a Private Browser on Safari/Firefox/Edge/Chrome

Knowing how to activate private browsing in all major browsers is an important toolkit item for personal digital privacy. There's no need to have special technical skills to be able to activate this feature. Here are the steps for how to turn on private browser mode for the top browsers:

  • Safari Private Browsing (Shortcut: Shift+Command+N): Start by opening Safari. Next, choose "File" from the menu bar. Click "Private Window" to activate a private window for browsing.
  • Firefox Private Browsing (Shortcut: Control+Shift+N): Once Safari is opened, go to the three-lined horizontal menu in the upper-right corner to click "New Private Window." A new window with a purple mask icon should appear on the right side of the top of the Firefox window.
  • Microsoft Edge Private Browsing (Shortcut: Control+Shift+P): After opening Internet Explorer, click on the gear icon located in the upper-right corner to select "Safety" from the drop-down menu. Next, select "InPrivate Browsing" to activate a private window.
  • Google Chrome Private Browsing (Shortcut: Control+Shift+N): After opening Chrome, click on the Tools menu located in the upper-right corner to select "New Incognito Window" to activate a private browsing window.

private browsing mode

Each private browsing session concludes when the private browsing window is closed. Opening a new browser without using the command to activate private browsing will result in a default non-private browser opening. It's necessary to reactivate a browsing window every time a user wishes to browse securely. The easiest option how to turn off private browsing is to open a non-private window. However, it's also possible to retrace the instructions for opening a private browser to deselect the option.

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