The latest snafu over the Philippine passport data breach has been trending online since the weekend. Thanks to that, the discussion over just how safe our data is has been sparked anew.
Since we’re on the topic, let’s delve into something that nearly everyone does, but rarely ever talks about: incognito browsing. The reasons for invoking that screen with the greyscale icon of a top hat and spectacles vary from the perfectly innocuous and smart (e.g., evading cookies to purchase airline tickets at cheaper rates) to ah, ones that I can’t exactly mention on a family-friendly blog like this one.
But we’re not here to talk about why we go incognito. No, today is all about how what we call “private” browsing isn’t all that private after all.
How Your Incognito Browser Doesn’t Really Make You Incognito
Ironically, using the incognito browser doesn’t exactly hide your online browsing identity, at least not from the very entities you’re trying to stay hidden from. While private browsing doesn’t leave a trace on your browsing history or leave a trail of cookies (those small text files that save your preferences on sites), your IP address remains uncloaked.
So, who can see what you’re up on incognito mode?
- Your boss or employer. Yep, the sites you visit will remain visible on your office network, thus giving your employer a record of what you’ve been up to online during work hours.
- Your school. Unless you’re using your own connection in class, the school will also be able to see what you’re doing on the Internet.
- Internet service providers, particularly yours. Come on, guys, this goes without saying.
- Sites you visit. Even if your computer doesn’t record your visit to a particular website, the latter will.
- Google. Surprise! Your Google history is separate from your PC’s, so any sites that you visit while logged into your Google account (whether you’re browsing incognito or not) will go on record there.
What You Can Use Private Browsing For
This isn’t to say that incognito browsing isn’t without its uses. While it won’t exactly shield you from the eyes of your ISP or your boss, it can prevent you from inadvertently leaving data on a shared computer. If you and your sibling share a laptop, for instance, and you don’t want them to know what you do during your spare time, this is where the incognito browser can come in handy.
Checking email on a public computer, such as the ones in your school library or in a computer shop, is also made safer via private browsing.
The incognito browser can also save you money. As I mentioned earlier, it erases search histories and tracking cookies so booking websites for hotels and airlines won’t be able to charge you more for flights and rooms that you’ve looked up more than once.
The lesson learned here is that incognito browsers were never a cure-all for data privacy or security. We still need to be vigilant about our online activities, and to carry out the right precautionary measures.
Whether we like it or not, we are living in an increasingly interconnected world. Let’s all tread carefully so we can minimize its associated risks while enjoying its advantages to the hilt.