Last updated 9/7/2011 to include changes to Safari 5.1.
The browser you’re using right now can block some online tracking technologies–like flash cookies and web trackers that can secretly share your online activities and history–but chances are you’re not doing it. Not because you don’t care about getting some online privacy, not because you don’t know about private browsing, but because you don’t have time to learn how the settings work. Well, we’re breaking down how to get online privacy for you, step-by-step, browser-by-browser.
Let’s face it–some of these anti-tracking features are hard to figure out, especially for those of us who aren’t the most tech-savvy, and stumbling through tab after tab of complicated privacy settings isn’t exactly the ideal way to spend our time.
All the big browsers–Firefox, Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Safari–now offer built-in pro-privacy features (some more than others), yet studies show that only 1-2% of users take advantage of them. Why so few? Some say that people just don’t care about privacy. We don’t believe that’s the case: we think people care deeply about their identities, anonymity, and data. It’s just that some of these features are needlessly complicated.
Before we get started, let’s establish what we mean by a browser’s “pro-privacy features.” This comes down to 2 different things: (1), using “private mode;” and (2) blocking targeted advertising. For maximum online privacy, you need both.
1. Enabling private mode
Most browsers offer a private mode, sometimes affectionately referred to as “porn mode,” in which most of your activity isn’t saved or stored on your computer. Cookies are automatically deleted when you close your window, and your history of web sites visited, passwords, autofills, searches, and downloads isn’t saved.
There are several important limitations to private browsing modes, however:
- They don’t hide or change your IP address, which your internet service provider (ISP) can use to identify you. (If you want to anonymize your IP address, try Tor or a paid proxy service).
- They don’t prevent websites, advertisers, and ad networks from storing information about your browsing history. Read: although your browser won’t store your history, the websites you visit still can.
- They don’t stop surveillance, keyloggers, or, as Google explains on their incognito page, “people standing behind you.”
“Private browsing” is a deceiving label because it only erases your history from your computer (so you’d use it if you’re concerned that other people around the house might check out what you’ve been up to). You think you’ve been “privately browsing,” but meanwhile:
- Every site you’ve visited has tracked you
- Most sites you visit put tracking cookies on your computer
- Most sites you visit send your info to third parties (like advertising networks)
To sum up: private browsing mode doesn’t let you browse privately; it just stops others you know from snooping in your computer.
2. Blocking targeted advertising
“Tracking” refers to the many different methods that websites, advertisers, ad networks, and others use to learn about your web browsing behavior. This includes information about what sites you visit and for how long, things you like, dislike, comment on, search for, and purchase. They then share this information across the web to show you ads, products, or services specifically targeted to you.
Here’s an example: after you search for “Texas barbeque” in Google, you start seeing ads for Dallas restaurants and Lone Star State barbeque contests on all the pages you visit. That search told the advertising networks that you’re at least somewhat interested in Texas bbq, and now they’ll follow you around the web throwing related ads at you.
Although there are a few ways of blocking targeted advertising, the browsers do it with what’s called a Do Not Track header. Think of it like this: when you visit a website, your browser waves around a little flag–the Do Not Track header–as soon as it arrives. That flag tells the website, its advertisers, and other content providers that you don’t want to be tracked. In theory, everyone who sees this flag will react to it by not targeting ads to you. Although you’ll still see ads, they’ll be anonymous: they won’t be targeted to appeal to you.
Here’s the major problem: websites don’t have to honor this message. Following the Do Not Track order is completely voluntary. Today, 99.9% of sites don’t do anything about Do Not Track. And it’s not because of effort: The Associated Press, the first major web service to follow the Do Not Track header, reported that “it only took a few hours for one engineer to implement.”
We’re hopeful that more sites will honor the Do Not Track header in the future, but for now, there’s no harm in enabling it.
Why Do Not Track Plus is Better
We offer more than the “wait and see” approach of the Do Not Track header. Instead of passively asking websites to “please don’t track me” and hoping they’ll listen, we actively disable ad networks and web bugs from tracking you. We block your browser from even requesting targeted ads from advertisers. The ad networks won’t even know you’re there at all.
In sum, we don’t rely on just the Do Not Track header. We still send it as a precautionary measure, but we do much more to protect your privacy. Intrigued? Try Do Not Track Plus for free.
Now that you understand the basics (and the limitations) of browser privacy, we’ll tell you how to start using it.
Getting privacy in Google Chrome
Enabling incognito mode
1. With a window open in Chrome, click on the wrench icon on the top right of the screen.
2. Click “New Incognito Window” on the menu that pops up.
3. A new window will open with a blue top bar, a right-side icon of a shifty-looking man in a trench coat, and a message saying “You’ve gone incognito.” You’ll remain in incognito mode until you close this window.
Enabling Do Not Track
Google has held out against Do Not Track, instead releasing an extension called Keep My Opt-Outs. Google bills it as “a one-step, persistent opt-out of personalized advertising and related data tracking.” Keep My Opt Outs works by installing opt-out cookies on your computer. These are “good,” site-specific cookies that prevent a corresponding site from installing future cookies.
The downsides to Keep My Opt Outs? First, you have to install an extension rather than simply changing your browser settings. Second, Keep My Opt Outs doesn’t actually block any tracking and advertising networks. Their cookies still allow the networks to store, collect, analyze, and use data about you; they’re only swearing that they won’t show you a targeted ad on that site. For more on Google’s browser privacy, check out their “Overview of privacy settings” page.
To install Keep My Opt Outs:
1. Visit the Chrome web store.
2. Click the blue “Install” button.
3. You’ll receive a yellow notification saying that “Keep My Opt Outs is now installed.”
4. To manage Keep My Opt Outs and other installed extensions, click the “Window” menu, then click “Extensions.”
5. In the extensions window, you can disable, uninstall, or choose to allow the extension to run while you’re in incognito mode.
Getting privacy in Safari
Enabling Private Browsing
Safari’s version of private browsing is called, unsurprisingly, Private Browsing. To enable it:
1. With a Safari window open, click the Safari menu and then “Private Browsing.”
2. A message will pop up and ask “Do you want to turn on Private Browsing?” Click OK.
3. You’ll enter Private Browsing mode. You’ll be able to tell if you see the “PRIVATE” button at the top right of your address bar.
4. To turn off Private Browsing, click the “PRIVATE” button. Alternatively, you can uncheck Private Browsing in the Safari menu.
Aseem Kishore pointed out a flaw in Safari’s Private Browsing mode: even when you use it, anyone with access to your Mac can get a list of the site’s you’ve visited using a Terminal command. Read his article here to learn how to clear those entries yourself.
Enabling Do Not Track
Safari 5.1 is the first version of Safari to support Do Not Track. Click here to download it if you don’t have it yet. We’ll wait.
Now, here’s how you enable Do Not Track. We were a little surprised at how hard it was to figure out:
1. Go to the Safari menu, then click “Preferences.”
2. Go to the “Advanced” tab on the right. It looks like a gear.
3. Check the box next to “Show Develop menu in menu bar.”
4. Close out of Preferences. You should now see a new menu, “Develop,” at the top of your screen between “Bookmarks” and “Window.”
5. Click the new “Develop” menu, then click “Send Do Not Track HTTP Header.” You should see a check mark next to it when you’re done.
Getting privacy in Internet Explorer
In IE 9, follow these steps to turn on InPrivate, Microsoft’s private browsing mode:
1. With an IE window open, click on the “Safety” menu, then click “InPrivate Browsing.” Alternatively, you can use the shortcut Ctrl + Shift + P.
2. You’ll see a message telling you that you’re in InPrivate mode.
3. To stop using InPrivate, close your window.
Enabling Do Not Track
Internet Explorer supports Do Not Track through Tracking Protection Lists (TPLs for short). TPLs block content from sites that appear on the list. Once a user downloads a TPL, it’s automatically updated. Microsoft offers four sponsored lists maintained by Abine, EasyList, PrivacyChoice, and TRUSTe.
Contrary to what you might think, installing more TPLs won’t necessarily give you more protection. Because TRUSTe’s list actually allows a great deal of content, enabling the TRUSTe TPL alongside any other TPL will negate the protective effect of the second TPL in many cases. Read more about why more tracking protection isn’t always better.
Here’s how to enable Tracking Protection in IE:
1. With an IE window open, click the “Tools” button (it has a gear icon on it), point to “Safety,” and then click “Tracking Protection.”
2. In the Manage Add-On box that pops up, select “Your Personalized list” and then click “Enable.” This installs a list based on your browsing history.
3. To change, manage, or add lists, open Tracking Protection and click the link that reads “Get a Tracking Protection List online.” Alternatively, you can visit Microsoft’s TPL page here.
Getting privacy in Firefox
Enabling private browsing
1. With a Firefox window open, click the “Tools” menu, then click “Start Private Browsing.”
2. A confirmation box will pop up. Click the “Start Private Browsing” button to begin.
3. A new window will open that says (Private Browsing) on the top with a purple masquerade mask.
4. To turn off private browsing, click the “Tools” menu, then click “Stop Private Browsing.”
Enabling Do Not Track
Of all the browsers, Firefox has the simplest Do Not Track feature. Here’s how to turn it on:
1. With a Firefox window open, click on the “Firefox” menu, then “Preferences.”
2. With the preferences box open, click on the “Privacy” tab. It looks like a purple masquerade mask.
3. Check the box next to “Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked.”
4. To disable Do Not Track, uncheck this box.
As we discussed when talking about Google Chrome above, Firefox’s Do Not Track header isn’t mandatory and most sites don’t listen to it. For added protection against tracking in Firefox, try a privacy add-on like Do Not Track Plus.
We hope you found this guide helpful. Are you satisfied with the privacy options your browser offers? Why or why not? What would you like to see to feel more protected? Did we miss something that you think we should include? Let us know by leaving a comment below.