We’ve all been there. Your mind wanders during your daily routine and then suddenly your interest is piqued by a random, rogue question. It lingers persistently and blocks all other attempts at thought. You completely disregard the fact that it is 2:30 AM and turn to the one source of information that is reliable — or at least won’t complain when you ask it a question at all hours of the night. Google. Yahoo. Siri. Bing. Alexa. All happy to take a stab at solving your dilemma. You enter your search: “Which is more deadly, a shark or a coconut?” The wheel spins and your retinas burn and then finally the answer is revealed. You lean back and breathe a sigh of relief knowing that your instincts did not lead you astray. However, after everything is said and done and you found the answers you sought, the real question is this: if you aren’t paying your search engine for these answers, how do they make money? What does a search engine get in return for all the queries you feed it? It turns out, quite a lot.
When you perform searches online, those searches are recorded and (if possible) they are tied to you as a user. This search data allows companies like Google to build a profile of you. This gives them insight into the types of products you might be interested in purchasing, which ultimately means they can serve ads to you which are more aligned with your interests.
Most modern browsers (even mobile browsers) have a feature which allows users to browse privately. What does it actually mean to browse privately? In basic terms, private browsing is your conscious decision to separate your online identity from the activities you perform on the web.
If you never browse privately, my objective is to convince you that it is worth your time to try it, because your digital profile is probably much bigger than you realize. Browsing privately affords you a tool to circumvent the mechanisms hidden around the web which are designed to track your activity.
First, there are a few web browsing concepts that are worth visiting.
What does your search history look like?
If you have a Gmail account and you’ve never visited google.com/history, my advice is to take a look as soon as possible (after reading the rest of this blog, obviously). Google is a relatively transparent organization and they will show you a very large portion of the data they collect. This feature echoes their mantra: “Don’t be Evil.” Google provides both the complete list of your search history and also statistics charting the time of day and the day of week when you typically search. Remember the scene in “A Beautiful Mind” when Russell Crowe’s character discovers his delusions aren’t real? Seeing Google History for the first time feels kind of like that. With Google History, you can see the search data you suspected they were already collecting.
I’m a brave guy. Here’s what my Google History reveals:
There are quite a few interesting tidbits here. Notice a search for my own name is the second highest search query that I have conducted. Also notice that I used Google to perform searches a total of 28,668 times. That is a lot of very personal search data they have collected about me. While the top items that I have searched for are relatively innocuous, I am sure there are things in my search history that would be better kept secret.
In 2006, AOL blundered and released a swath of ‘anonymous’ search data which they not-so-cleverly made anonymous by replacing usernames with random numerical IDs. The problem is, many people search for things that are very easy to tie together. Have you ever searched for your own name? Maybe you’ve performed a search for your social security number to see if it is floating about the internet? Maybe you accidentally typed your password into Google’s search field. Maybe you search for things of a more illegitimate nature. Seeing your entire search history laid out in front of you can be a bit of a shock because there is so much data. The point is, your search data is very personal and it is important to realize how sensitive it is.
You’ve probably heard about cookies and have a vague sense that they are used to store data about you while you cruise around the web. In general, they are harmless. They keep you signed into your Amazon account. They make it possible to write web applications that maintain state. In the case of NewYorkTimes.com, cookies are used to track how many free articles you’ve viewed before you crash into a paywall. In the case of Google, your searches are tied to an identity specified in one of your cookies, which is why you suddenly see laptop ads all over the web after having only moments before Google’d “new laptop”. Because targeted ads are much more successful at converting customers, it seems likely that this practice will only increase and become more sophisticated. Remember – it is via the cookies stored in your browser that Google ties you as a user to the data they’ve collected about you.
Enter private browsing
Google Chrome has a built-in feature called incognito mode. To use incognito mode, open Chrome as you normally would, and then hit ctrl+shift+n (Windows) or command+shift+n (Mac) to open a new incognito window. The fact that you are in incognito mode is clearly indicated by the shady character with a hat and glasses in the title bar of the browser window. An incognito window does not share cookies or browsing history with a normal Chrome window. All of your browsing data will be expunged when you close ALL incognito tabs. Also, all browser extensions are disabled by default, which you can manually re-enable if you choose. Here are a few scenarios in which browsing in incognito mode is a good idea:
- Gift shopping. This is perhaps the most obvious example. If you are planning to surprise a loved one with a gift, it would be counterproductive for that person to use your computer and see a swath of ads that were targeted as a result of your prior searches. Browse privately, and that search history will never be tied to your account – assuming you have not logged in to your account in the incognito window. I make a point to always search for gag-gifts in incognito mode because I don’t want Amazon or Google to think I’m actually interested in such things. (I previously made that mistake with the ‘Banana Bunker’.)
- Searching for flights or hotels. If you make your travel arrangements online, the possibility exists that the sites you visit are working against you. The price of a flight may be linked to a cookie stored on your browser, and as you repeat your search, you may notice the price increasing. This is a tactic that can be used to scare you into booking a ticket before the price increases even more. If you close and reopen your incognito window, the site you are on thinks this is the first time you’ve visited them, and they are more likely to show the lowest price.
- Starting fresh. If you are a web developer or engineer (such as myself), incognito mode is an invaluable tool because it provides an easy way to start a fresh browsing session which is completely void of cookies or authenticated sessions.
Caveats and Conclusions
It is important to remember that while incognito mode does hide a lot, it does have limitations. Your IP address will always be visible to the outside world. Also, because your ISP handles your browsing traffic, they will know what sites you visit. If you are not on a secure website (designated by ‘https’), your passwords can be easily viewed by third parties. Keyloggers or other malware installed on your computer could also be recording your keystrokes. Privacy is never definite, but by using the private browsing modes that are already built into your browser you can improve your chances of being able to keep your information secure and anonymous.
I’m not suggesting that you browse in incognito mode 100% of the time. That would be way too impractical. Cookies do have a definite upside and can enhance the way you interact with the web. Having an understanding of how you are being tracked empowers you to make an informed decision as to whether or not you want to allow tracking to occur. Happy browsing!