Whether you like it or not, your actions online are being monitored by social media networks, advertisers, and even the U.S. government. But it’s also pretty easy for other people — your kids, your significant other, or your boss — to see where you’ve been on the Internet.
When doing normal Web browsing, your computer keeps track of all the websites you’ve visited. Anyone with access to your computer can check out your Web history.
That’s where the private browsing options available in the popular browsers come in handy. In Chrome, the feature is called Incognito Mode, and you can open a new incognito window with Ctrl+Shift+N in Windows or space bar-Shift-N on a Mac. In Internet Explorer, you can access InPrivate Browsing by holding down Ctrl+Shift+P. To open a Private Browsing window in Firefox, it’s Ctrl+Shift+P in Windows or Command-Shift-P on a Mac. In Safari, you’ll have to access it manually by clicking on the Safari menu bar and selecting the Private Browsing option.
These are good tools to ensure that not every online footprint will be seen. See below for some especially good times to use the private option:
1. When using a public computer.
Maybe you’re checking your email real quick on the hotel lobby’s guest computer, or logging in to Facebook while you wait for assistance at the Genius Bar. Whatever you’re doing, a regular browser window will automatically save every Web address you visit to its history folder. If you forget to clear that history, or to log off, someone might be able to see everything you were doing, or even access any accounts you left open.
2. When using a communal computer.
Take it from me, a kid who would relentlessly search every corner of the house for my Christmas gifts from my parents: If you are sharing a computer in your home, a family member will find a loophole to spy on your search history. And if you happen to be shopping online for birthday gifts, engagement rings, or anything else special, all your planning for a memorable surprise will be ruined once another person wanders into the History folder.
The same goes for when you’re sharing a computer with your significant other. Just one quick click on another girl’s Facebook page can pique suspicion, even if it’s completely innocent.
3. To see what others see while searching.
Most search engine algorithms take into account your search history and the basic information you’ve given them to bring up the most relevant, personalized results. That’s usually helpful, but it also means that when you search your own name, you might not see what a potential employer sees. To test your results against a clean search history slate, open a private browsing window. This is how the rest of the Internet views you.
4. To get past paywalls.
Some news sites (cough, The New York Times, cough) have erected paywalls that allow readers to view only 10 articles a month. It tracks the number you’ve clicked and then blocks you from reading any further unless you sign up for a digital subscription. If you don’t care to do that, however, you can simply open a private browsing window, and it’ll have no memory of your past browsing on the site. Sneaky, huh?
5. To keep your shopping history private.
Suggested shopping results at Amazon, for example, work by using cookies to track your browsing. They’ll then advertise similar products when you log back in to the site, or even visit another one. After I bought kitty litter on Amazon, for instance, every single YouTube ad became cat related. That’s a little creepy. And if you happen to be searching for a nose trimmer, or a wart cream, it could even be embarrassing.
(Cover image: Google)