Are your kids hiding their web activity? Learn about the pros and cons of Private Browsing

Private browsing (sometimes called hidden or incognito) is…well…just what it sounds like.  It allows you to maintain some privacy when visiting web pages.

By surfing in a “private” or “hidden” window:

  • Pages you visit will not appear in your browser’s history list
  • Searches will not be part of your search history
  • Pages will not be able to store cookies.  A cookie is small file that a website stores on your computer.  While cookies can be helpful, for example remembering your name next time you visit Amazon, some cookies are used by advertisers to show you ads related to your interests.  So, browsing privately can help prevent this kind of ad-tracking activity.

What are the benefits of private/hidden web browsing?

Private browsing has benefits.  If your family shares a computer, there may be times you want to hide your web site visits from the family.  You may be researching birthday present ideas for your kids, and don’t want them to come across those searches.  Use a private browsing session, and your search terms won’t show up as a recent search.

Or you may want to prevent companies from “tracking” you all over the web.  For example, I was on Amazon.com and noticed that a favorite movie of mine, Fight Club, was available for a low price.  I didn’t buy it but did put it on my “wish list”.  A few days later, while visiting Facebook, I saw this add in the sidebar:

fightclub

Now, if I had browsed privately, that Amazon visit would not be remembered by the web browser.  Facebook would have to serve me up another ad (maybe Turbo Tax?).

But remember it works both ways.

Let’s take a look from another perspective – that as parent.  We want to maintain our privacy and our children’s privacy online .  We may be uncomfortable with the idea that companies can target ads to our children.  While private web browsing can help prevent it (not necessarily eliminate it), keep in mind that the solution also gives children the means to hide their website activity from you.

You may be checking the browser’s history (in most cases you can click Control-H) to review the sites your kids are visiting.  But your tech-savvy kids may know all about incognito or hidden or private web browsing; you may not be seeing all their activity.  You’ll need to use parental control features to view the sites that may be hidden.  For example, Microsoft Family Safety will report my daughter’s web site history regardless of the browser settings.

If the family computer is in a public location in the home (recommended!) you may also look for the visual cues that a hidden window is use.  Here’s how it works in popular web browsers.

Chrome calls it an Incognito Window

Ctrl-Shift-N will open a new Incognito window, or click the little lines in the upper right and choose Incognito window.

chrome_openincognito

When an incognito window is open in Chrome, you’ll see this little icon in the corner:

chrome_incog

More about Chrome’s incognito window – “Pages you view in this window won’t appear in your browser history or search history, and they won’t leave other traces, like cookies, on your computer after you close all open incognito windows. Any files you download or bookmarks you create will be preserved, however.”

 

Internet Explorer calls it InPrivate Browsing

Ctrl-Shift-P will open InPrivate browsing in Internet Explorer.  (This is from IE version 9)

ie_openinprivate

When InPrivate browsing is open in Internet Explorer, you’ll see the words InPrivate near the address bar:

ie_inprivate

More about Internet Explorer’s InPrivate Browsing: “InPrivate Browsing helps prevent Internet Explorer from storing data about your browsing session. This includes cookies, temporary Internet files, history, and other data. Toolbars and extensions are disabled by default.”

Firefox calls it a Private Window

In Firefox, choose “New Private Window” from the Firefox menu, or Ctrl+Shift=P.

firefox_openprivate

When a Private Window is open in Firefox, the Firefox menu tab is purple with a small icon, as shown here:

firefox_privatewindow

More about Firefox’s Private Window:  “In a Private Browsing window, Firefox won’t keep any browser history, search history, download history, web form history, cookies, or temporary internet files. However, files you download and bookmarks you make will be kept.”

Safari calls it Private Browsing

In Safari, click the gear icon and choose Private Browsing.

safari_openprivate

With Private Browsing enabled, you’ll see the word PRIVATE near the web address.

safari_privatebrowsing

Private Browsing on Mobile Devices

On Apple devices, the default Safari browser offers Private Browsing.

If you prefer NOT to have this feature available for your child on their iOS7 device, there are two things you can do:

1. Enable web content filtering – this will block adult web sites AND keep the web history even with Private browsing enabled.  (Useful for younger children where you also want to block adult and unknown web sites, but you’ll spend more time adding exceptions to the list)

2. Disable Safari and use a kid-safe browser – many of these alternative browsers keep a report of visited sites that you can access.

On Android and other mobile devices, you may have to install a browser that offers Private Browsing.  For example Firefox for Android – https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/mobile-private-browsing-browse-web-without-saving-syncing-info.

 

There are other ways to prevent companies from tracking you all over the web, and I’ll talk about some of these tactics in future articles.  For now, know that private browsing can help keep your web activity private, but also gives kids a way to hide things from you.  As always, ongoing discussions about appropriate computer use and expectations are key.

 

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Comments

  1. Liz says

    Jean,
    This is great info..thanks so much! Now if I could only figure it out on our new Kindle Fire..still learning things on that one. Liz

    • Jean says

      Oh yes the Kindle Fire has its own browser called “Silk”. Not sure what options exist there for private browsing. If I find out I’ll reply back!

  2. Sam says

    Hey, some kids my age (13) are tech savvy (like me) and use something called a proxy WITH inprivate browsing so if you install a program to block websites or try to see what your kid has been looking at you will not be able to. This can be a real problem because they can go to sites that you have already reviewed like omegle and can expose themselves easily.

    • Jean says

      I almost didn’t post this comment, not wanting to give others this idea! But I suppose when there’s a will, there’s a way, and it’s hard to find a fool-proof solution. Now others who read this can be aware of some of the ways that kids, teens (or adults) might try to circumvent settings.

  3. Manish says

    is there is any way to see private browsing history in firefox..if it’s possible plzzzzzz post the procedure or mail me plzzz..

    • Jean says

      Hi, well that’s the thing, if someone does private browsing, it does not leave any traces in history. So the only way would be with a third party product that would capture the browsing history regardless of using private browsing or not (such as many of the parental control tools mentioned here).

  4. robin says

    so if i use my company system it is also possible that they can not track my browsing history like if i use facebook youtube or some unauthorized website…..

    • Jean says

      Depends; for a mid-to-large size company, keep in mind they are providing the connection to the internet; they are like your ISP at that point and may have other ways to monitor or block which sites are visited.

  5. says

    is there any way to track what was browsed before from a private window (in Chrome) or to retrieve the deleted web histories?

    • Jean says

      Hi R,
      Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment, seems I was having an issue with e-mail! I’m not really sure of a way to do that. If I find out I’ll reply back again.

  6. Alexandria says

    Excuse me ms. Jean. But is there a way to check the private browsing history on my android phone? i have google chrome on it and i want to know if there is a way to look at the incognito history. my bf uses my phone and i want to know if hes looking at bad stuff

  7. Alexandria says

    Excuse me Ms.Jean but is there a way to check the incognito browsing history on my android phone? My boyfriend likes to use my phone and i suspect he uses it to go on dating websites

    • Jean says

      Hi Alexandria,
      Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment, seems I was having an issue with e-mail!
      I’m not quite sure about Android, from what I’ve read you might need to install a browser that offers Private Browsing. For example Firefox for Android.

  8. Lesley says

    Hi Jean,

    I am a teenager who was browsing casually through the web and stumbled across your website. Your advice, I have to admit is rather good, but if I am honest, too good. I have seen in some of your comments of the mention of actually looking through your child’s search history (sometimes on a daily basis, if I go by some of your readers’ comments). As a young adult ( I am 15), I know from experience what it is like when a parent is controlling your every digital move. When I was 12/13, if your parents actually bothered to check up on your internet doings, you were harshly judged by the other kids. Like, nearly to the point of bullying. I know “mother’s instinct” and all of that, but your kids will not learn to be cyber-independent when they are older. Sure maybe blocking a few of the inappropriate sites, but to the point of checking history is like telling tour child you don’t trust them. Honestly, that is what it feels like. On the other hand, I am from Britain, and don’t particularly understand the American ways, but this is just from my point of view. Thank you.

    • Jean says

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Lesley! I appreciate input from teens as well as parents. I think as a parent it’s always a challenge trying to find the delicate balance between protection and trust…especially for the many parents who just never had to deal with social media, the internet and cell phones when they were your age! An analogy I often like to use is that of training wheels on a bicycle…start with these extra protections in place, to be sure your child does not get hurt as they are learning. Once they are ready, remove the training wheels, trusting that the child has learned the skills needed to keep themselves safe!

      • Aidan says

        I’m 19, when I was younger my parents would look at my browser history and etc. This led me to start erasing the history. I was scolded when there wasn’t any browser history, so at 10ish, not knowing about private browsing, I would download Firefox (we had a Mac so it used Explorer or maybe Safari, but I can’t remember if we had Safari back then) and delete the entire browser when I was done using it. From there it was proxy servers in school, then an onion browser to get on the darknet, leading up to my present day Kali Linux. Years of insecurities have certainly taken a toll on my psyche. I have trouble socializing. I take medication for depression and anxiety. I struggle with drug addiction, and frequently go multiple days without sleeping.

        Obviously not all my issues are due to my overbearing parents, but beware: If you plant the seed of paranoia, society may nurture it to into a thriving jungle of fear.

    • Jean says

      Hi Dave,
      Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment, seems I was having an issue with e-mail!
      You can check Safari web browsing history in iOS. From the bookmarks tab there is a selection “History” that stores the history of visited web sites. However it is pretty easy to Clear the browser history from that same screen and no way to prevent the tech-savvy kid from doing this. If you want to be able to view the history of websites visited by your child on their device, the suggestions above might work, which are to enable content filtering in Restrictions, or use a different browser.

  9. Wayne says

    I am a new ITSec guy who has some very mischievous pre-teen boys and teen girl who are frequenting some very inappropriate sites. I know Google Incognito is the one that probably gets used the most, I know it does with these kids. Being an ITSec guy, I cant imagine that Google (or the other browsers) would come out with something that would leave ZERO trace. No one does that really. So my question is, how would someone find out what sites have been visited with Incognito? I cant imagine the only way is to use Wireshark, MNM, or similar programs. Maybe this is best discussed via email. If so, please let me know.

    As for the kids…lets be honest here guys, non of you are using incognito or similar, to be Facebooking and Googling. If you don’t want mom and dad knowing what you’re doing, then you likely shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. ;)

    • Jean says

      Hi Wayne,
      Right, blocking the browser history doesn’t mean there is no trace of the URL’s that were visited. For example in a work setting there is no expectation of privacy (at least at my large organization) and the URL’s can be tracked at the network level. So it can probably done in the home setting by way of router settings or add-ons. I’ll also add that with a parental control software such as Windows family safety installed on a profile, then incognito window in the browser is not even an option.

      • Cook says

        Hey Wayne I would like it very much if you could shoot me an e-mail so I can figure out what URLs are being visited on a computer. Can you email me?

  10. rel says

    Say if you have an android and you went to incongnitio on everything but your parents don’t have parent control but there getting it can they see history

  11. Tin says

    Hi Jean, thanks for this very useful info. You mentioned that Microsoft Family Safety will show you your child’s web history even if they have used “inprivate” mode. I was wondering how you find that web history? If you’d rather not post here, please feel free to email me. Thanks so much!

  12. Jane says

    Honestly, stalking comes to mind. I can to some extent understand the desire to control your child’s activity online but to regularly check their history just because you want to know… it’s like reading someone’s diary. And the argument you brought up before about the safety wheels… If you want your child to be safe online and not go on the ‘bad’ websites, and here’s a crazy idea, TEACH THEM WHY IT’S WRONG! Talk to your kid. Explain why the incognito might be useful and how it can be wrong. Also, whether you like it or not teenagers are going to watch ‘nasty things’ at least one time just like most adults do. Instead of stalking your kid explain to them what’s wrong with it. If they want to do it, they will do it parental control or not. People should try to minimise the harm instead of tickling their parental need for control just because they can.

  13. Dirk says

    While your explanation of private browsing is mostly correct it is not true that during private browsing no cookies will be stored to your computer (which would make many web activities impossible), however they will be removed after closing the private browser window.

    • Jean says

      Thank you for the clarification – the cookies may be present during the incognito browsing session, but will not be stored once you close the browser.

  14. Max says

    Worried about your kid using their phone to look at things they are not supposed to? Here is a tip.
    Most phones now have an auto correct feature that is there to help correct the common mistakes that people make when typing. It also stores common words that are used. When most of them are done using their phone for their purpose they will clear the history, or may have been in a private browser. One way to out is look at the words they commonly use. THIS IS NOT A 100% though. This is just to help you u destiny if they are. Most apps will track commonly used words so when you type half of it in, the rest will pop up as a guess.
    I prefer SwiftKey because it doesn’t have bad words already build in. If your kid uses that language he had to accept the word as a normal use. So that way you can see if they build it in. Also it showed the last time the data on the device was cleared. This way you can see if they constantly wipe their auto correct. Again this is not 100% because some apps have build in words that you may not approve of, or just collect from what the mass that people use. You have to learn what features the apps have and find one that will work best for you. But try to think outside the box and not focus on the Internet history, but the TEXTING history in a way.

    • Jean says

      Other people using the same web browser later will not see the sites you visited if you used private browsing; but that doesn’t mean its impossible for *anyone* to find out. (see comment above about DNS cache).

  15. Someone says

    Hi there. This guide sure is helpful but I do want to know one thing. I don’t know if it’s possible or not. But… I’ll ask anyway. Is there any way to know someone’s ( e.g your brother/sister ) current internet browses? Like for example, they’re browsing facebook and it’ll show there that they’re exactly browsing it. I don’t know if I explained it well because I couldn’t come up with a better explanation. But please, if there’s a way to do this, I would be glad to know about it and appreciate any reply.

    Best regards.

  16. x says

    You may Aswell call this ‘how to invade your child’s privacy’. You should be ashamed of yourselves I am 17 and I know what its like to have parents that don’t trust their children. You all need to stop invading your childrens privacy,let them live their lives without constantly being controlled by you. And it isn’t an opinion it’s a fact. If you feel the need to check your child’s history then you clearly don’t trust them and your only protecting them from things they’re going to see later in life. They learn and hear a lot more inappropriate stuff at school than they do on the Internet.

  17. Trusting Parent says

    FREE App Pop-Up ads entice even the most innocent & trustworthy. Child. Teen. Adult.
    Parents have hunches this is happening. Generally 5 years too late.
    Teens feel invaded.
    These pop-ups link to pornographic sites.
    Easily accidentally swiped.
    Your teen’s beginning of addictive secrecy & demand for privacy may have started at age 6, 8 or 10 while playing a harmless game!
    And we thought it was about finishing a new level in a free game app.
    Images & instant-play videos from inadvertently tapped pop-ups cannot be deleted from his/her mental cache.
    Once viewed – forever stored.
    Vast evidence of the addictive effects of pornography is well documented. Hence, parental control product development.

    Trust builds trustworthiness. Trustworthiness builds trust. Critical building blocks of healthy two-way relationships. Parents are 1st & most significant in that training. When integrity & purity in child/teen meet parent actively equipping integrity in child resultant reassurance, respect & security grow. When deception & impure child/teen activity meet same adult children/teens protest invasion of privacy & lack of trust.

  18. alfred says

    What if I want to check the history if my kid is using private windows in Fire fox, is there away to find out so I can keep an eye and protect when needed?

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