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Want to browse the web privately? Here’s how to do it for real

When it comes to browsing the Web without leaving a trail, there is a lot of noise out there. Advice varies from getting a VPN, to disabling cookies, to utilizing the Private Browsing mode within the browser of your choice. But which of these tools actually work? And how do they work? The truth is, different tools prevent different kinds of tracking.

  • Your IP address is a series of numbers generally set by your ISP, and is necessary to access the Internet. Any site you visit can log your IP address, which could later be used to identify you.
  • Accounts you’re signed into, such as Google or Facebook, can be used by those companies to track your activity on those respective sites, along with other sites thanks to an embedded code. Things like Google Analytics or the ubiquitous “Like” button could, in theory, track your browsing activities on behalf of those companies.
  • Cookies are small text files generated by sites to save, among other things, your preferences on sites. The Web would be very annoying to use without them, but cookies are also sometimes used to track users for advertising purposes.
  • Your online fingerprint, or user agent string, is made up of all the information your computer sends out to Web servers while requesting a website. This includes what browser and operating system you’re using, as well as your resolution. This site lets you see what this information looks like. Your fingerprint isn’t necessarily unique, but can be used to track you even when everything else is obscured.

There are other methods, but these are the main tracking tools as of this writing. Knowing which privacy tools to use depends on which of these things you’re concerned about. Let’s go through all the different tools you can use to browse the Web privately, and go over what they do and don’t do to protect your privacy.

RelatedHow to delete cookies in Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and IE

Private Browsing: Stop your browser from tracking you

What it does: Opens a new browser session that isn’t signed into any accounts and doesn’t utilize cookies. Activity in private browsing mode is also not added to your browser history. 

What it doesn’t do: Stop sites from tracking your IP address. 

Your Web browser keeps track of every site you visit, and stores a complete list of those sites in your browser history. This can be a very useful tool for finding back websites you’ve visited, and it’s also used to populate the auto-suggestions you see every time you start typing a URL.

private-browsing-incognito

Sometimes, however, you might want to browse the Web without your browsing keeping track of your all your activities. That’s where Private Browsing comes in.

This feature has different names on different browsers — on Chrome it’s called Incognito Mode, on Internet Explorer it’s called InPrivate — but acts basically the same on all of them. A new browser window opens, and none of your activity in that window is added to your browser history. Any accounts you’re signed into in your other browser windows are not signed into in the Private Browsing window, meaning you can’t be tracked as a user of those sites. And your cookies are not visible while using Private Browsing, meaning sites cannot track you this way.

private-browsing-firefox

So, Private Browsing mode does quite a few things if you want to quickly browse the Web without being tracked by your accounts or by cookies. However, it also doesn’t obscure your IP address. Any site you visit can still keep a record of your IP address, which could in turn be used to identify you.

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