Purpose of Private Browsing

by David Nield

All major Web browsers include a private browsing mode (links in Resources), but before you switch to it, you should make sure you understand what it does and what it doesn't do. Essentially, your software forgets private browsing sessions as soon as they are over, so there are no traces left of your online activities.

Uses of Private Browsing

Shut down a private browsing session, and -- as far as the browser is concerned -- it's as if it never happened. This special incognito mode can be used whenever this might come in handy: shopping for a secret gift, borrowing someone else's computer, or searching for sensitive information that you don't want colleagues or anyone else to find out about. You can also use it to check the privacy of your social media accounts. For example, you can view your Facebook Timeline in a private browsing session to check how it appears to other people on the Web.

Browsing History and Searches

Any pages you visit or searches you run while in the private browsing mode are not stored permanently. Nor will the browser keep a record of files you've downloaded -- although the file itself will still be there, unless you move it. If you have some embarrassing or sensitive research to carry out, private browsing ensures any related searches or pages won't suddenly pop up as suggestions the next time someone else uses the Web browser. It can also come in handy on public computers, where you don't want to leave traces of personal information.

Cache and Cookies

The temporary file cache and cookies are also cleared whenever a private browsing session ends. These files store personal information, such as your location and your website preferences, so the private mode offered by your browser is useful whenever you don't want to leave this sort of information behind. If you are temporarily borrowing or troubleshooting someone else's computer, then you can use private browsing to get online without affecting all of the owner's existing browser settings.

Website Logins and Bookmarks

Private browsing is not the same as anonymous browsing. If you log in to Facebook or Twitter during a private browsing session, for example, your browser will keep no record of these visits or your login credentials, but the site in question will be able to identify you. Likewise, if you have Google Web History enabled and you're logged in to the service during a private browsing session, your searches are stored on Google's servers, even if they aren't saved in the local browser's records. Any bookmarks you save while browsing in private mode are kept when you return to normal operation, as are any browser settings you make changes to.

About the Author

An information technology journalist since 2002, David Nield writes about the Web, technology, hardware and software. He is an experienced editor, proofreader and copywriter for online publications such as CNET, TechRadar and Gizmodo. Nield holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and lives in Manchester, England.

Photo Credits

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