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Private Web Browsing Explained

Simple steps to stay protected while spending time online

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Alashi/Getty Images

If you spend a significant amount of your day online, realize that others can see virtually all your activity.

It’s like having a few interested parties looking over your shoulder as you type and click. Your internet service provider (ISP), browser, search engine, social media sites and others are watching, mostly to understand what you like so they can serve up relevant advertisements.

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Being watched also puts you more at risk for cybersecurity threats, so taking precautions to remain private should be your first priority. Doing so doesn’t require a lot of technical know-how. A few keystrokes and some software should keep you safe.

Private browsers work better than going incognito

Many web surfers choose private or incognito mode when opening a favorite web browser because it deletes your history and trackable cookies after your surfing session. Be aware your online activity is still visible during your time online. This info can be tracked, saved and shared or sold to third parties.

While private browsing prevents information from being stored automatically on your device, your activity and your general location through your device’s IP address, a numeric designation that identifies its location on the internet, are still seen.

Instead, consider a more private browser for your desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet such as Avast Secure Browser, Brave, DuckDuckGo, Epic Privacy Browser, Tor or Vivaldi. Some mainstream browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and Opera also do a great job with privacy.

At its core, private browsers block trackers and ads on websites you visit. Some even offer advanced features such as bookmark and password synching between devices, customized news feeds, secure search and virtual private networks (VPNs).

Private browsers may look like others, but they work differently on the back end. Tor routes your traffic through multiple proxy servers that act as middlemen between you and the websites you want to browse to keep you anonymous online.

Private search engines help with anonymous exploration

If you prefer to stay on your existing browser but want more privacy when looking something up, opt for a private search engine to remain anonymous. None of your search history is tracked, analyzed, saved or shared. Your device’s IP address isn’t seen or stored either.

By comparison, when you use Google, your searches are kept and packaged for advertisers to follow you around to different websites and apps. Targeted advertising appears beside your search results, in free games and other apps, through Google Maps, on partner websites, in YouTube videos and elsewhere.

Instead of the ubiquitous Google Search, Bing and Yahoo! Search, private search engines such as Brave, DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, Qwant, Startpage and Swisscows offer peace of mind when scanning the web. DuckDuckGo, probably the most popular, also makes a traditional web browser and browser extension for Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Firefox and Microsoft Edge.

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While you’ll see similar results as a Bing, Google or Yahoo! search, they won’t pop up quite as fast when you use a private web browser. Sometimes the order of results isn’t consistent among multiple searches, which means you may have to try a few times when conducting a search.

Virtual private networks conceal your online identity

VPN software works using encryption to secure your connection and scramble your data, making it unreadable to anyone who tries to access it. This protects you from snoopers who want to know what you’re doing and what sites you visit.

Think of a VPN as an underground tunnel, as opposed to the open and visible information superhighway where everyone can see information flowing across lanes of traffic on the internet. You still get to where you’re going, but without unwanted parties monitoring your travels.

Popular VPN brands include ExpressVPN, NordVPN and ProtonVPN. They also come as part of a cybersecurity suite, such as those from McAfee and Norton.

5 tips to remain private

1. Avoid public Wi-Fi hotspots in places such as airport lounges, coffee shops or hotel lobbies. You never know if your information is being tracked and logged, so wait until you get home. If you can’t wait, use your smartphone as a personal hotspot, but be aware it requires a data plan.

2. When you install an app on an Apple device such as an iPhone, tap to agree not to let apps track your whereabouts online. This reduces an app's visibility into your web browsing and app activity. If you allow tracking, sites such as Facebook could know where you recently searched, like visiting a home improvement store site for power tools. This increases the odds of your seeing Facebook ads tied to power tools in the future.

3. Use a strong password for all your accounts, at least eight characters and a combination of letters, numbers and symbols plus upper- and lowercase letters. Never use the same password for all online activity. Better yet, install a password manager. And opt for two-factor authentication, also called multifactor authentication, which requires a password and one-time code typically sent to your mobile device.

4. Make sure you have good antivirus software to stop threats. Turn on automatic updates for your devices, web browsers and third-party add-ons. They warn you of suspicious websites you may find yourself in.

5. Opt for a screen guard, also known as a privacy screen, if you frequently use your laptop outside the house. You’ll need to find one that fits your screen perfectly, such as a 15-inch screen with 16:9 aspect ratio, and learn to look straight at the laptop to see words and images. For everyone else, like the guy in the seat next to you on a plane, the screen looks as if the computer is turned off.

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