A reader commenting on a Q&A about the rise in behavioral tracking for targeted advertising asked a great question: How does one browse sensitive subjects without being tracked via cookies?
For most Web activities, many people won't be bothered that they are served up ads for cars or even acne cream if they have been reading news about the newest Tesla or visiting dermatology Web sites. But what about when someone is researching a hereditary or embarrassing medical condition that one would not want revealed to advertisers, shoulder surfers or, worse yet, insurance companies?
You might want to start by perusing the Web in Private Mode. Private browsing, affectionately dubbed "porn mode," allows you flip a switch in the browser so it stops saving a record of the sites you have visited and content you have downloaded until you flip the switch off.
- In Firefox it's called "Private Browsing."
- There's an Incognito mode extension for Chrome. This article tells you how to switch any tab to Incognito with one click and here's information for using Incognito for specific sites.
- Internet Explorer has an InPrivate browsing feature, as well as offers a way for people to selectively block sites from tracking.
- Apple has had private browsing since OS X 10.4 Tiger.
Do Not Track
Not only have researchers figured out ways to defeat some of the private browsing features, but private browsing offers limited protection. For example, private browsing tools don't stop social sharing buttons and ads from following you as you bounce from site to site.
As a result, we have software like Abine's Do Not Track Plus browser add-on, which blocks Web sites and ad networks from following you around the Web and lets you see who is trying to track you.
And there is AVG's Do Not Track, which lets you fine-tune the blocking of ad networks and Web analytics.
Most of the major browsers offer do-not-track code that, when enabled by the user, notifies Web sites that you do not want to be tracked. But it's useless unless the sites support the Do-Not-Track technology. Microsoft is taking it a step further and proposing to have the Do Not Track cookie preference turned on by default in IE, despite opposition from advertisers. And then there are plug-ins that provide more control and insight into the tracking. There's Collusion for Mozilla and Google has Keep My Opt-Outs for Chrome. Other tools for opting out of tracking are TrackerBlock for Firefox and PrivacyChoice for Chrome.
IP masking Cookie disablers block the storing of cookie data on your computer, so your browsing history can't be recovered later from the machine. But they do nothing to prevent Web sites you visit from grabbing your IP address and correlating that data with other information the site may have on you or your account. Governments regularly ask ISPs for user data as part of investigations and this can lead to real names and addresses. Even though Web browsing is logged according to the customer's IP address, which identifies the computer used, the ISP can easily associate IP addresses with subscribers who are required to provide personally identifiable information for payment purposes.
The latest version of HotSpot Shield from AnchorFree hides the IP address of Web surfers and blocks ad tracking. It operates like a virtual private network, transmitting data over encrypted connections through its servers to hide the IP address. This has the added benefit of protecting users against wifi spoofing or man-in-the-middle attacks.
Anonymous browsing And for the truly hard core, there's the Tor Project, which operates a network that offers anonymous browsing over encrypted channels. But it may be overkill if you are mostly interested in staying out of sight of ads.
Got any other tips or suggestions? Let us know
Correction at 9:22 a.m. PT June 25: The story overstated how long Safari has had private browsing. Safari has offered it since OS X 10.4 Tiger.