What happens when you go incognito in your browser? Not a lot!: Internet Scambusters #947
Incognito, in private, privacy mode -- call it what you will when you switch on this setting on your Internet browser. But don't expect much protection.
This so-called privacy setting does little beyond stopping your browser -- Chrome, Firefox, Edge, etc. -- remembering where you visited.
But you're likely still being tracked by sites you visit by your Internet service provider (ISP) and others. In this week's issue, we'll explain what you really need to do to be truly incognito.
Let's get started…
Why Browser Incognito Mode Doesn't Protect Privacy
Have you ever clicked on the "in private," "incognito" or similar private mode option in your browser and thought you couldn't be tracked? Forget it. With a couple of minor exceptions, you really haven't done anything to protect your privacy.
Most people realize by now that it's next to impossible to surf the Internet securely using a conventional browser. Sites you visit can place cookies (small pieces of code) on your device, unless you severely restrict them.
This enables them to recognize you when you return -- which can actually be helpful to you by avoiding the need to keep signing in. But cookies may also tell site owners where you visited previously and what kind of things you've been looking at.
Yes, you can impose restrictions but, without other security elements, this has limited effect on concealing your activities. So, when you stumble across the "in private" option in your browser, it's reasonable to assume you've closed all the doors to the prying eyes of hackers and scammers, as well as legitimate sites that want to know what you're up to so they can exploit it.
But that's not so, as more and more people are discovering. As PC magazine Computer Active recently put it: "Enabling your browser's private mode won't stop you being tracked by advertisers. It won't make you anonymous online. And it certainly won't protect you from malware or phishing sites."
In fact, all that private mode does is stop the browser itself from keeping track of your activities. So, if other people also use your PC, they won't be able to identify which sites you visited by, for example, checking the "history" setting. Some cookies and images may also not be stored, but that's about it.
Your Internet service provider (ISP) still knows which sites you visit and, depending on who your ISP is, they may even provide this information in response to official requests from government, law enforcement, and so on.
Security software developer Psafe explains: "Incognito mode doesn't mean that your boss or Internet service provider can't track your browsing history. Many major websites can still track and record your behavior in incognito mode, too, which means that you won't be able to escape data collecting and targeted advertising."
And, if you're unlucky enough to already have malware installed on your device, this will ignore your incognito setting and continue to operate as normal behind the scenes. A number of hacking tools can also track and share information about your cell phone browsing activities via a technique known as "canvas fingerprinting."
How to Be Incognito
What can you do to truly protect your privacy and keep you safe from prying eyes?
Here are five key actions you can take:
- Block or limit cookies. As suggested, by itself this has only limited effectiveness. But it's an important first step. You'll find options both to block and clear out cookies in your settings.
The main idea is to block what are called "third-party cookies," which are placed on your PC by advertising trackers and data gatherers. "First-party cookies" are those placed on your device by the actual websites you visit so they know when you come back.
These days, many websites won't allow you to visit them unless you accept their first-party cookies but, as a default, you should block the third-party code.
- Use an add-on that blocks on-screen ads and trackers that are sometimes buried in online advertisements. Most of these blockers have settings that enable you to allow exceptions from sites you know and trust.
However, increasingly, some sites recognize that you're using an ad blocker and refuse to give you access unless you turn it off.
Examples of popular ad-blockers include Ghostery, AdGuard, AdBlock, and uBlock.
- Use a browser that never records your searches. Most search engines, like Google, store details of sites you visited. A couple don't. These include the new and increasingly popular Brave browser and the long-standing one with the curious name -- DuckDuckGo.
- You can go one step further by using a browser that routes your activities through multiple computer services all over the world. This makes it almost impossible for anyone to detect who and where you are and what you're doing.
The best-known one is called Tor. Unfortunately, it has two disadvantages. First, because of the convoluted routing, it can be extremely slow and sometimes won't load pages at all.
Second, it's the browser of choice for crooks, scammers, and hackers -- a key gateway to the Internet underworld. That means you could be in bad company. Plus, high-tech Internet crime specialists devote a lot of time trying to track some users' activities on Tor, so you could end up drawing attention to yourself.
Your ISP knows when you're using Tor, even though they can't tell the sites you're visiting.
- Use a virtual private network (VPN). A cousin of privacy browsers, VPNs conceal your most important online identifier. This is called your IP address. Every computer or home network has a unique set of numbers, but when you channel your activities via a VPN, you use their IP address, not yours.
We wrote about VPNs in Issue #813, Do You Need a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for Your Internet Safety? Some are free, some are paid for, and some have different policies. For example, since they obviously know your IP address, you need to know what their policy is on sharing this with others.
To get the best one for your needs, it's worthwhile checking reviews and comparison sites. Here's a good starting point: The Best VPN Service 2021.
As online activities become more and more central to our daily lives, protecting your privacy has become crucial. Simply opting for incognito mode on your browser just won't cut it.
Alert of the Week
A scam email pretending to come from PayPal is the latest in a never-ending procession of attempts to steal customer sign-on information.
The crooks are phishing for details so they can drain victims' PayPal accounts.
As usual, the email looks remarkably like the real thing. It claims your account information is incorrect so you supposedly must click an "Update" button, which, of course, will take you to a fake sign-on page.
Legitimate or not, you should never click on links like these in emails. If you want to know if there are issues with your PayPal or any other account, go straight to the correct site, in this case: paypal.com.
Time to conclude for today -- have a great week!