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Anonymous browsing explained: What you need to know

Anonymous browsing, also known as private browsing or incognito mode, enables users to browse the internet without leaving a trail of online activities. Is it really anonymous?

Websites have been tracking users almost since their shared beginnings in 1990. Customer profiling and user activity tracking enable businesses to gather data and target their advertising while keeping the web free and open for today's consumers -- unlike the closed, metered communities of pre-internet days.

Though web tracking benefits businesses and users alike, irritating privacy issues and even life-threatening safety concerns in repressive countries underpin anonymous web browsing's rising popularity.

And while it is possible to browse the web anonymously, it isn't easy. Virtually every site tracks user movements, usually just to sell something. Occasionally, it's more nefarious than that.

What is anonymous browsing?

Browsers continue to store more information on the client side -- including hyperlinks, cache data, passwords and other private user information -- rather than download them from the website, all in the name of speed. This began in the '90s when painfully slow dial-up modems were standard.

When browsing anonymously, the browser typically does not save browsing history, cookies, site data or information entered into forms. The user's IP address might also be hidden or masked to protect their identity and location.

However, the price of anonymity is inconvenience. First, the browser does not save a record of the websites visited during the anonymous session. A user's history is empty, and the autocomplete function when typing URLs is disabled.

Anonymous browsing also means no cookies, or small files that store information about user preferences, browsing activity and personal information. In addition, anonymous browsing blocks other sites that read and track cookies across websites to glean user information and behavioral patterns.

However, cookies are convenient, saving preferences or user information and enabling autofill of forms. Anonymous browsing does not allow autofill. Instead, online forms for login credentials, shipping information, user information or credit cards must be entered completely during each visit to a site.

Anonymous browsing reduces tracking by websites and advertisers, but it provides neither complete anonymity nor security. In each instance, users who initiate anonymous browsing trade some convenience for some safety.

Why would someone want to browse anonymously?

Some users don't want their activity tracked, collected and sold by a website, advertiser or ISP they visit or use. Many websites track users' browsing habits to deliver targeted advertisements. Some people welcome this. Others object and subsequently consider anonymous browsing.

Furthermore, determined bad actors can trace an IP address back to its original location, endangering personal information. Anonymous browsing encrypts and protects a user's IP address, increasing their security.

In some countries, governments restrict, monitor and censor internet access. Anonymous browsing enables users to bypass these restrictions and access content freely.

Learn more about social media privacy issues.

Anonymous browsing vs. private browsing

The terms anonymous browsing and private browsing are used interchangeably, but they are two different concepts. Anonymous browsing typically refers to browsing the internet while concealing identity or personal information from websites and other entities tracking online activity.

Private browsing, on the other hand, enables users to browse the internet without saving their browsing history, cookies, local data such as HTML cache, form data and other temporary files.

Anonymous browsing obfuscates an IP address, while private browsing's features prevent the saving of any personal information on a chosen device -- computer, tablet or phone. Keep in mind that private browsing does not hide movement on a site, so any visit to Amazon, for example, is tracked in private browsing, but not anonymous browsing.

Is anonymous browsing really anonymous?

Unfortunately, anonymous browsing is much more difficult to accomplish because there are several interested parties between users and their intended web destinations, including search engines and content delivery networks. These interested parties engage in various levels of snooping at times.

Google recently settled a lawsuit concerning user privacy and will delete billions of data records. The company faced accusations of improperly tracking the habits of users who thought they were browsing the web privately.

The trouble with anonymous browsing begins with a user's local ISP, which provides the user with an IP address and, therefore, knows the identity of each user and what each user is doing. Next, destination sites receive a user's IP address from the user's ISP, and some destination sites are determined to uncover all the information they can.

How web tracking works

Through the years, web browsers and web servers developed numerous techniques for tracking users in a nonintrusive way, including the following:

  • Cookies. One of the web's first tracking technologies, cookies are small data files stored on devices by the websites a user visits. These cookies contain information such as login credentials, preferences and browsing history, enabling users to avoid reentering login information on subsequent page visits. On complex sites such as e-commerce sites, cookies track a user's behavior across multiple pages and personalize the user's experience.
  • JavaScript. JavaScript code enables more complex tracking activities than the simple cookie file format. It can monitor clicks, form submissions and other interactions. It can also collect information about a user's devices, browsers and behavior in a way that cookies cannot.
  • HTTP headers. As part of the data exchange between the user's browser and the server hosting the website, HTTP headers can contain information such as the user's IP address, browser type and referring website.
  • Digital fingerprinting. With digital fingerprinting, sites can identify and track users -- even if their IP address is concealed -- by analyzing the unique characteristics of their web browser, such as the browser's configuration, installed plugins, operating system, screen resolution, language settings and other attributes.
  • Third-party trackers. Many websites include third-party tracking scripts from advertising networks, analytics providers and other services. These trackers collect data about users' interactions with the website and other sites they visit, often without their knowledge or consent.
  • Server-side tracking. Some websites collect information on visitors' activity and interactions on the site, then store it on the server and use it for building profiles and other analytics.
  • Cross-site tracking. Advertisers, data brokers and other third parties use the browser's digital fingerprints to track a user's movement across different websites. They can then use this information to build detailed profiles of the user's online activities, interests and preferences for targeted advertising, analytics or other purposes.
  • Search engine and DNS queries. A search engine saves a user's search history, even if that user doesn't have an account with the search engine. So, although a visitor's browsing history isn't saved, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo track every visitor's search history and store it.

Ways to browse anonymously

In spite of the negatives, it is possible to remain relatively anonymous online. It requires a little extra work on your part, though not much at all:

  • Type https://. Rather than typing http:// in a URL, add the extra s to encrypt communication with the website. This makes it more difficult for third parties to intercept your traffic and for the destination website to track you.
  • Use virtual private networks. VPNs route your internet traffic through encrypted tunnels and hide your IP address. There are many VPN network providers. Most charge a subscription fee for their service, although the Opera browser has a free, built-in VPN.
  • Use proxy servers. Proxy servers act as intermediaries between your device and the internet, masking your IP address and making it appear that you are connecting from a different location -- even another country.
  • Use the Tor browser. Tor, an acronym for The Onion Router, is a free and open source web browser built on Firefox that routes your internet traffic through its network of volunteer-operated servers, encrypting your data and IP address. It's designed to protect privacy and anonymity online by preventing anyone from monitoring your browsing habits.
  • Access anonymous search engines. Several smaller search engines emphasize user privacy, don't track your search history and don't collect personal information. Chief among them is DuckDuckGo, and other options include Startpage and Searx.
  • Focus on privacy-focused browsers. Some browsers prioritize user privacy by offering built-in features such as ad and tracker blockers, plugins that do the same, stronger privacy modes, and options to disable telemetry and data collection. These include Firefox, Brave and Epic Privacy Browser.
  • Use secure messaging apps. Encrypted messaging apps such as Signal or WhatsApp deliver private one-on-one communication, offering end-to-end encryption to protect your messages from interception or access by third parties.
  • Clear cookies and browsing data. You should regularly clear your browsing history, cookies, cache and other stored data -- accomplished in your browser settings -- to remove historical traces of your online activities from your device.
  • Disable location tracking. Disabling location services in your device settings prevents websites and apps from accessing your location information.

Andy Patrizio is a technology journalist with almost 30 years' experience covering Silicon Valley who has worked for a variety of publications -- on staff or as a freelancer -- including Network World, InfoWorld, Business Insider, Ars Technica and InformationWeek. He is currently based in Southern California.

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