Private Mode Activated: Browsers That Always Look Over Your Shoulder

Private browsing versus regular browsing

No one likes the feeling of someone looking over their shoulder, peeking at whatever personal and private information they have on their screen.

So, when we’re online and we fancy browsing the web, we should be able to feel like whatever we’re working on is private, and no one can follow our digital footsteps.

We all use “private” browsers for different reasons.

Whether you’re hiding your Christmas shopping searches on the family computer, searching embarrassing symptoms or using your work laptop to play video games. We all have things to do online where we want to feel invisible.

For many of us, we load up our internet browser’s “private” mode, and feel as though we’re a secret agent. Jumping from site to site, no longer worrying about who can see what we’re up to.

But, whilst the “private” browsing window might have a dark mode, or a spy symbol, the truth behind the scenes is much less secure than it might lead you to believe.

So, whilst there are many great reasons to load up that “private” browser, how good of a job does your internet browser do of erasing evidence that you were ever there?

Here at VPNOverview, we wanted to delve deeper into exactly what a private browser actually hides from your computer.

We analyzed the details of the four popular internet browsers’ “private” mode, to find out how each one manages your privacy when you’re browsing online.

Chrome in private browsing mode

Google logo on a screen

We don’t always have a choice on which browser we can use. In fact, many workspaces suggest Chrome due to the handy extensions that can improve productivity.

But, before you load up Chrome’s incognito mode to do some online shopping on company time, you might want to double-check exactly what your work computer will be tracking!

Incognito mode will stop Chrome storing the files you download, but they’re still saved to your computer, even after you leave incognito mode. Also, all bookmarks you create are saved to Chrome, as well as your preferences and accessibility choices.

The ‘private browsing mode’ will stop your web browser from saving your browsing activity to your history. But, your activity, as well as your location, might still be visible to the following:

  • Your internet provider
  • Your employer, school or whoever runs the network you’re using
  • Websites you sign in to
  • Websites you visit, including the ads and resources used on those sites

Chrome’s incognito mode will also allow web services, search engines or internet providers to see:

  • Your IP address, which can be used to identify the general area you’re in
  • Your activity when you use a web service
  • Your identity if you sign in to a web service, such as an email account

Safari in private browsing mode

Hand holding an iPhone

Safari is the second most popular web browser in the world. Many people have invested in Apple’s ecosystem, with a huge variety of products all linked to one account.

An Apple iCloud account can be incredibly convenient, compiling all of your preferences, bookmarks and searches in one place. Being able to access these across a variety of products saves so much time, making life that much easier.

But is it worth it, if the “private” browsing mode Safari offers isn’t completely covering your tracks?

The “private” browsing mode on Safari will not save your search history but it will not protect you from the following:

  • Your IP address is still visible to any website or service you use
  • Your service provider can still see your search history
  • A private browsing session will still leave your internet activity exposed to your school or your employer

That’s not all Safari’s “private” browser will reveal either.

It might preserve your privacy on your device, but it won’t conceal your behavior or protect you against identity theft. Your IP address will also be exposed, and other third parties will be able to track your activity online.

Above all else, it won’t stop websites from using browser fingerprinting techniques to identify you with near-accuracy.

Edge in private browsing mode

Microsoft has the oldest web browser out of the most popular choices for internet users. Internet Explorer was originally launched in 1995, but it didn’t have a private mode until much later in 2009.

Now, Microsoft has the newly developed browser, Edge, which has taken on a more refined look than IE, and has completely replaced the old web browser.

But what about its private mode?

Well, if you’re a regular user of Edge, and don’t fancy swapping over to a new browser, you might want to double-check exactly what its “inPrivate” browsing mode actually hides you from.

Like the other browsers, if you use “inPrivate” browsing, other people using your device won’t be able to see your search history. However, here is what it won’t protect you from:

  • Your school, workplace and internet provider might still be able to access your browsing activity
  • Your collections, favorites and downloaded files will be saved, as well as any changes. They will also sync across all your signed-in devices

The Privacy Statement for “inPrivate” browsing also highlights that Microsoft’s Edge will only collect data that you have consented to provide.

It also states that websites you’ve visited are never used for product improvement and aren’t associated with your Microsoft account.

Firefox in private browsing mode

Firefox has long been sold as the ‘best browser for privacy.’ It’s run by a non-profit organization, uses less memory so programs run at top speeds and even has a “Do Not Track feature”.

This feature offers users an opportunity to opt out of tracking by the websites they visit, including the collection of their data regarding their activity across the internet.

Firefox also has its own version of private browsing. It’s been a go-to for tech enthusiasts for a long time, but how does its private browsing mode compare to the other big names?

  • The private browsing window doesn’t make you anonymous to websites or your internet service provider
  • Downloads from a private browsing window will remain on your computer
  • If you bookmark a site whilst in a private window, it will remain in your list once you leave the browsing session

Also, Firefox’s private browsing mode does not protect you from malware installed on your computer. However, any cookies that are set in a private window are discarded at the end of your private browsing session.

Non-private browsing sessions

Let’s be honest, many of us spend most of our online time using a regular browsing window.

Whether you’re a social media guru, always on your emails or even if you’re just online to Netflix and chill, private browsing windows aren’t always at the forefront of our minds.

But this leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of nasty intruders, taking a peek at our browsing history and potentially targeting us for cybercrimes.

So, what is your regular browsing window actually collecting on you?

Chrome in normal mode

Google is known for its extensive data collection of its users, from the sites you browse to even the physical locations that you visit.

Their basic browser mode states that it will store information locally on your computer, including:

  • Browsing history
  • Personal information and passwords
  • A list of permissions you’ve granted to sites
  • Cookies or data from sites you’ve visited
  • Data saved by add-ons
  • A record of your downloaded items from sites

Safari in normal mode

Safari might have been the first web browser to offer a ‘private’ mode for users, but how does their regular browsing window compare?

Safari’s Privacy Statement highlights that they only collect the personal data that they need, which depends on how much you interact with Apple.

This includes:

Category of information Specific details that could be collected
Contact information Includes your name, email address, physical address and phone numbers
Payment information Includes your billing address and method of payment
Account information Includes email address, devices registered, account status and age
Usage data Includes your browsing history, diagnostic data and how you use Apple services
Health information Includes data related to your physical or mental health condition, as well as data that can be used to make inferences about your health

Edge in normal mode

Of course, just like their competitors, Microsoft’s Edge also collects your information and tracks your activity when you browse the web outside of their ‘private mode’.

There are many similarities between the popular web browsers, and the types of data they collect on their users when in a non-private window.

Edge’s regular browsing window states that Microsoft will collect data from you, through your interactions with Microsoft and their products.

Similar to the other browsers, Microsoft offers you the choice when it comes to sharing your data. However, if you decline to share your data, you will not be able to use the feature or app that requested it, leaving you a difficult choice to make.

Firefox in normal mode

Firefox are well known for valuing your privacy as an internet user, but that doesn’t mean they don’t collect your data.

According to their Privacy Statement, if you’re using their regular browsing window, Firefox will share data in order to provide your functionality and to help them improve their products and services.

The areas they will collect your data from include:

  • Your search history
  • Your Firefox accounts
  • Your location
  • Any website notifications you have activated
  • Add-ons

What you can do to feel safer

Most internet browsers offer their users private windows to use, particularly when they want to cover their digital tracks. If that is something you are interested in, we wrote an extensive guide on how to enable incognito mode on various browsers.

But, if you’re looking for something more secure that will keep your online activity well hidden, installing a VPN might be right for you.

A VPN creates a secure connection between you and the internet, sending all your data traffic through an encrypted virtual tunnel.

This might sound like some sci-fi tech, but it’s readily available for you and offers many advantages, including:

  • You’ll be more anonymous on the internet, so that your IP address and location won’t be available to everyone anymore
  • You’ll be safer on the internet, as keeping your data encrypted won’t leave you as vulnerable to cybercriminals
  • You’ll be more free on the internet, as you can change your location to be able to access different websites and online services that would otherwise be blocked

To learn more about VPNs and how you can get the best out of them, see our expert’s explanation here.

Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cyber security analyst and one of the founders of VPNoverview.com. Interested in the "digital identity" phenomenon, with special attention to the right to privacy and protection of personal data.