How to Keep Your Internet Browsing Private
Incognito mode, private search engines will help you surf on the web without leaving (much of) a trail
Search engines, companies and advertisers monitor your online activities so they can serve you ads targeted to your interests.
It’s usually perfectly legal, but many people see this practice as an invasion of privacy. If you prefer to search the internet without leaving a trail, you have two main choices, one a bit more powerful than the other.
Weaker option: Incognito mode
All mainstream browsers — including Apple's Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox — have an “incognito” or “private browsing” mode. Search the browser name and “incognito setting” to get sign-up instructions. They vary by browser.
Or open a new window and choose the private option in your smartphone’s browser for a one-time private browsing session. After you close your browser, your history, cookies and website data are automatically removed, which means the browser has no information for companies and advertisers to use.
What it doesn’t do: keep websites from monitoring what you do while visiting them. Nor does it prevent your internet service provider (ISP) — or your employer, if it’s a work computer — from seeing all the sites you use.
Stronger option: Private search engines
For greater privacy, use a private search engine that won’t monitor or record your searches or sell that information to third parties.
However, when you click on a link to visit a website, that particular site can track your activity while you’re there. And your ISP and employer can follow your activity.
Some popular options include Brave Search, DuckDuckGo, Peekier, Qwant and Startpage, all of which are free. The main drawback: These sites may not provide the variety of results you would get from Google or Microsoft's Bing. But you should still be able to find what you need.
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Add privacy-minded extensions to your browser
An extension or plug-in is a piece of software downloaded and added to your browser that provides additional features and capabilities. Some are free, while others can be purchased for a one-time fee or have an ongoing monthly or annual subscription fee associated with them.
Certain extensions will help protect and preserve your online privacy. You can install an extension in any browser, including Chrome, Edge, Firefox or Safari. Here are a few geared toward privacy:
- Disconnect shows you the names of specific web trackers for each site you visit and lets you stop them from snooping on you.
- Ghostery will stop ads and trackers by letting you choose among four types of blocking.
- Privacy Badger tries to learn which sites attempt to track you and then blocks that tracking.
- uBlock Origin is an ad blocker that stops popup ads and prevents them from sending your private information to advertisers.
Disable Facebook monitoring
If you use Facebook, be aware that the company likes to track you even when you browse to other websites via a feature known as Off-Facebook Activity. The purpose is to monitor your shopping interests and buying habits so you’ll receive targeted ads when on Facebook.
You can disable the feature if you don't want Facebook to snoop on you this way. On your Facebook page, go to Settings & Privacy | Settings | Your Facebook Information | Off-Facebook Activity.
Select the link for Clear History to remove any past monitoring from your account. Next, select the link for More Options | Manage Future Activity. Turn off the switch for Future Off-Facebook Activity to stop this type of monitoring.
Lance Whitney is a contributing writer who covers technology. His work also appears on Macworld.com, PCMag.com and TechRepublic.com.
Jason R. Rich is a contributing writer who covers technology. His work also appears in Forbes and Entrepreneur magazines, and he has written several books, including AARP's My Online Privacy for Seniors.