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Private Browsing modes protect your privacy on your machine, while Anonymous surfing protects your identity on the internet. They're not related.

Does Google Chrome's "stealth mode ", FireFox's "Private Browsing" or IE's "InPrivate" features count as anonymous web surfing?

No. Not even close.

These privacy modes do something completely different, perhaps even something important, but they in no way deal with your anonymity as you surf the web.

I'll look at what they do, and perhaps as importantly, what they don't.

What privacy modes do is actually very simple: they cause the browser to not keep history.

"There's simply no anonymization related to private browsing mode."

"History" means more than just the list of pages you've visited - it typically includes also auto-complete functions in the browser address bar, things you've searched for, form entries, password, cookies and your browser cache. Essentially anything that normally happens automatically that might leave a trace of where you've been browsing.

There are exceptions and risks.

Files you download, or bookmarks you create while in private mode will likely remain. You explicitly asked for them, of course.

Addons to your browser may, or may not, be aware of private mode, and may or may not continue to be privy to, or keep some kind of record of, what you've been viewing.

And as always, if you happened to have spyware on your machine, all bets are off. The spyware could be tracking anything, no matter what.

Here's what it's not...

It's not changing what your requests and web surfing look like to the outside world.

  • The servers you contact still see you, at your IP address.

  • The networks you travel across still see your unencrypted data which can be sniffed, particularly at open Wifi hotspots

  • Basically anything that made it look like you to the outside world still looks like you.

There's simply no anonymization related to private browsing mode. Private browsing protects your privacy from others who might look at your machine. It does not affect how you appear on the internet.

Article C4268 - April 9, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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2 Comments
Anonymous Surfing
May 2, 2010 11:34 AM

Many people don't realize that the privacy settings on Google, Mozilla or IE won't actually keep their information fully private. I have found that the best way to keep myself safe and my information private is through a proxy. Proxies will allow you to surf anonymously, unlike Google, Mozilla or IE. Proxies will not only erase your history like the privacy settings do but supply you with a new ip address, and encrypt the information on your computer. I find it nice to know that I am safe while surfing the web.

Alan P.
May 17, 2010 8:06 AM

Private browsing/stealth mode only effect your machine from someone sitting in front of it and looking at your history. At that, private browsing/stealth mode will not hide your browsing history from a "techie" like the one your wife's divorce attorney will hire to document your p0rn surfing.

DO NOT use a proxy service from work. If you are looking at things on the Internet at work that your boss has declared a no-no, be it p0rn, ebay, facebook or whatever, the IT guys can track every single search and site you have visited. The most basic content filters are going to block or log your attempt to use a proxy site. After that, you are just waving a big flag that says "watch me!!"

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