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TLDR; Summary

I saw a post on Facebook recently asking the question: Does anyone besides marketers use incognito mode for anything other than watching porn? Just in case you didn’t know, incognito mode on your browser (most browsers, not just Chrome) does not protect your online privacy. And Google has made this very clear, telling people that incognito does not mean invisible.

Even if you use your browser’s Incognito Mode, third parties can still track your online activities! Third parties can include your Internet Service Provider, the government, and anyone on a public WiFi, such as at your local coffee shop or the airport.

While Google has said it’s going to stop this practice, the platform still collects a ton of data about you, including your location and search activity — yes, even in incognito mode.

Incognito mode simply deletes information related to your browsing session from your computer: your history, cookies and any info you’ve entered into fields. Notably, it only does that after you end your session by closing out all your tabs.

The only thing that incognito (private) mode does is to hide your browsing activity from others who might use the same device once you close the browser. It does NOT prevent prevent Google, websites you visited, your service provider, or anyone else from tracking you while online. This is done using website trackers. Learn how you can stop these trackers from collecting your data.

What are web trackers?

Web trackers are small pieces of code that let companies spy on your online activity across the web. The result is that they compile detailed data profiles about you. These profiles are based in part on what websites you visit, what you click on, your location, and more.

When you visit a website, it’s very likely that first-party trackers are monitoring your movements. In fact, this type of tracking is often expected and can help the user experience. For example, if you bought this, you might also like this.

Third-party trackers are likely to be lurking in the background, monitoring your behavior as well. Over 70% of all websites embed third-party trackers on their websites, often unknowingly, because they find them useful in someway. The most common of these are Google Analytics and Google Fonts. These third-party trackers collect your data for a variety of reasons, often advertising. The way the agreement with Google works is that Google can also use this information for other purposes, like for their own targeted advertising and search results, unrelated to the website you are visiting or its company’s purposes. That is the reason why privacy laws like the GDPR require that you tell your users if you are using these Google services.

Google plants trackers on millions of websites that log your every move. When the same tracker is littered across many of the websites and apps you use every day, it’s easy to see how Google (or Facebook) can combine the data its tracker collects to create a massive amount of data about your online activity. Google combines your search history with other personal identifiers like your age, gender, location, IP address, and device information to build a personal profile of you. It then uses this profile to serve you up personalized search results and targeted ads.

But it’s not just advertising. These same profiles are also often used to decide what content you’re shown, which can put you in a filter bubble. At a societal level, this type of targeting and filter bubble manipulations have contributed to problems like political polarization, ad discrimination, and misinformation online.

So, How Can I Browse Privately on the Internet?

Online privacy is not possible with a single tool. However, there are tools that can help, and when combined can make your online activities significantly safer.

Search Engine

DuckDuckGo is a search engine that competes with Google. The difference is that DuckDuckGo does not track your searches. They do not serve up targeted ads, so they have no need to track your searches. DuckDuckGo does make its money on ads, but the ads are contextual rather than targeted. In other words, if you search for ice cream, you may see ads for ice cream shops, but they do not track the fact that you are searching for ice cream and do not build up a profile about you. DuckDuckGo doesn’t store your personal info, follow you around with ads, or track you online. DuckDuckGo gathers results from over 400 sources, including Yahoo!, Bing, and Wikipedia (but never, ever Google).

DuckDuckGo also has a browser, but the browser has come under attack recently for allowing Microsoft trackers to be used. Its was discovered the DuckDuckGo Browser allows scripts from its ad partner Microsoft while websites are loading. These scripts collect various data, including user IP addresses, and send that data to Microsoft servers. DuckDuckGo claims this is the result of an agreement with Microsoft and that it’s working with the company to reduce these restrictions. However, this does not affect the DuckDuckGo search engine, only the browser. The best solution for a truly private internet is to use the TOR browser (which I discuss later) with the DuckDuckGo search engine.

Websites will still be able to track you and collect your information as DuckDuckGo’s tracker blocker only blocks well-known trackers. Your ISP will also still be able to see your search activity, as will the Wi-Fi owner, and anyone else watching your Wi-Fi connection, like cybercriminals (the guy in the coffee shop or airport eavesdropping on your activity).

You have to encrypt and secure your entire online connection. The requires the use of a VPN.

VPN

A Virtual Private Network provides the best protection available today for internet users who want to ensure that their online travels go unrecorded. A VPN provides an encrypted tunnel for your internet connection, hiding your online travels from prying eyes. While your ISP or government may be able to tell that you’re connected to a VPN provider, they have no way of knowing where your travels take you from there. All of your online activities are protected by the layer of encryption. Check out iproVPN or NordVPN.

That same encryption keeps your personal and business-related information safe from “hacker boy” down at the coffee shop, as the encryption makes unreadable any information you send via the VPN while banking or shopping online.

Browser

There are several browsers that claim to be private and secure. Most of these, including “Brave” are based on Chromium (the open source browser project at the core of Google Chrome). Firefox is one of the last major browsers that isn’t. Firefox runs on its own Quantum browser engine built specifically for Firefox, so they can ensure your data is handled respectfully and kept private.

But the most private browser is Tor. The Tor Browser is based on the Mozilla Firefox browser platform but has been modified to be even more privacy-friendly. The Tor Browser anonymizes your online browsing traffic through a series of distributed relays, which thousands of volunteers around the globe run. By sending the browser’s requests and responses through these relays, Tor hides your real IP address, preventing any third parties from tracking your activities back to you and your actual location.

This creates a problem if you are viewing streaming video, participating in a Zoom meeting or webinar – or other online activities that require a fast, responsive connection – as it slows your connection down by routing it through the relays that provide anonymity.

Conclusion

For most daily activity, I suggest Firefox as your browser and DuckDuckGo as your search engine. When you are using public WiFi, make sure you use a VPN and the Tor browser.


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