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Browsing the internet in ‘stealth’ mode sounds cool. Like a secret agent, you can research taboo and controversial topics and nobody – not even the government – will know. Except, that’s not actually how it works. Your browsing activity is never private, and the government knows everything.
- True anonymous browsing is a myth
There’s no such thing as private browsing. Even hackers get caught when the authorities eventually trace all the bogus IP addresses used to mask their true location.
Unless you’re the world’s greatest hacker, the best you can do is prevent other users from accessing the history on your computer. For example, Chrome’s ‘Incognito’ option won’t save your internet history, so if your parents use your computer, they won’t know you’ve been secretly learning how to knit sweaters for penguins. That’s the extent of anonymous browsing.
Incognito and similar browser applications only keep your history off of your local machine. This distinction is crucial to understand because your browsing history could be used against you. If there’s no way to erase it completely, when a court wants it, they’ll get it.
For example, if you work for a property management company, you might be tempted to view a potential tenant’s social media profile. In some states, that’s illegal. However, even if it’s not illegal in your state, an applicant might sue you or the property management company you work for, claiming they were denied due to a protected class or status. If that happens, you could be in big trouble. Even if you didn’t discriminate, they might be able to convince a judge that you did.
Using Chrome’s Incognito feature only applies to your local machine. It won’t prevent your ISP from collecting your search and browsing history, and it won’t protect you from a court order.
- Your ISP is collecting your browsing and search history
The fanciest VPN on the planet won’t prevent your ISP from collecting your browsing and search history. Your router collects the history generated by all devices that connect to your network and sends it to your ISP. If the government decides they want your browsing history, all they need to do is subpoena your ISP and they’ll get it – VPN or not.
- Your search history is being saved by Google
Consider the implications of your browsing activity before you trust a so-called anonymous browsing tool. Anonymous browsing tools aren’t going to protect you in all cases. For instance, if you’re signed into a Google account while using Chrome’s Incognito feature, Google is saving your search and browsing history (including your voice searches) on their servers. You can delete your history from the “My Activity” page in your Google account, but there’s no guarantee it’s not archived somewhere else.
- Your data is for sale and it’s not anonymous
In 2016, a journalist went undercover to find out how difficult it is to make internet browsing data truly anonymous – the data being collected and sold by third-party browser plugins. Svea Eckert from the German media organization NDR, gained access to a 30-day free trial to the browsing history of 3 million German users. She used a pseudonym, a fake company address, and didn’t even register the company she claimed to represent. Still, the data broker gave her an all-access pass to the data.
Eckert partnered with a team of data scientists to see if they could identify individual users from the data. She began by looking to see if she could identify her own browsing history in the dataset. While her browsing data wasn’t in the dataset, her colleagues were, and she was able to identify them specifically.
Next, Eckert attempted to find out which browser plugin was collecting and selling the data. She had one colleague delete one browser plugin each hour until his data disappeared from the dataset. He disappeared when he deleted the seventh plugin called Web of Trust. The irony is this plugin offers “free tools for safe search and web browsing.”
The problem is that search histories often include URLs that contain IDs unique to each user. For example, if you’ve visited the analytics page for Twitter, your Twitter URL is included in the URL. Someone can query the database to find your Twitter handle, and they’ll instantly have access to all of your browsing history.
Be skeptical of software claiming to provide privacy
Most data collection is used for marketing purposes, and there’s nothing you can do about that. However, it’s smart to be aware that online privacy doesn’t exist so you don’t put your faith in software making false promises.