If You Use Your Web Browser's Incognito Mode We've Got Bad News

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We’ve got bad news for all those who use their web browser’s private browsing mode – such as Chrome’s Incognito Mode – in order to covertly Google their poop-related medical questions, search for other jobs while at work, or, as is most likely the case – look at porn.

Firstly, none of the private modes offered by the major browsers can protect your online history from being viewed by Internet service providers or government agencies, block third-party groups from tracking your activity or determining your geographical location, nor prevent viruses and malware from infecting your computer. Instead, the modes are designed to simply stop cookies and autofill details from being saved on the user’s local device.

And secondly, while these limitations are not actually newsworthy in and of themselves – they have been reported multiple times in recent years – how poorly the browser companies’ users disclosure documents explain them is.

A study conducted by American and German researchers, published online after its inclusion at the Web Conference in Lyon, France, surveyed 460 adult volunteers on whether or not use of a private browsing mode would affect the data collection outcomes of hypothetical online scenarios that encapsulated the most common miscommunications.

While completing the online questionnaire, participants were given access to a copy of one of 13 disclosure agreements – the mobile and desktop versions of the six main browser companies’ (Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Edge Opera, and Brave) documents or a fake, control agreement that was purposefully written to be confusingly vague – so they could have a reference of what private modes can and cannot do.

Despite this resource, participants still tended to overestimate the capabilities of private browsing. According to the paper, 56.3 percent thought that search queries would not be saved while in private mode while a user was logged into their Google account. Additionally, 40.2 percent believed that websites would not be able to determine a user’s location, and 22-37 percent thought that ISPs, employers, and the government would be unable to track browsing history. The other most common misconception was that private browsing offered more protection from viruses.

Although it is a user’s responsibility to inform themselves of a browser’s features by actually reading the disclosures, the authors assert that these texts need to be written better. 

They note that only “participants who saw the Chrome or [older version of the] Chrome disclosure gave significantly more correct responses." "Surprisingly, no other disclosures we tested differed significantly from the meaningless control disclosure, and our results suggest that some disclosures may have led to additional misconceptions.”

Sadly, they conclude that disclosures are currently getting worse, not better. The newest disclosure for Firefox’s private mode goes so far as to advise users to “browse like no one’s watching.”

Joke, a lot of entities could be watching.

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