How to enable private browsing on any device: iPhone, Android or Windows

Want to know how to surf the web privately on Windows, Mac, iOS or Android devices? Here's our private browsing guide

Let's face it: there's very little we can do privately nowadays and one of the things we have pretty much lost is the right to browsing the internet anonymously. Whatever we search for is tracked on browsers, the route we take through the internet, flicking between websites, social media networks, applications on our phones, is tracked by our ISP and website owners.

When you opt-in for browsing history to be synced with your laptop, desktop, tablet and mobile, you're making it easier to switch between devices, but you're also opening up device tracking, so your every step is recorded.

Although it feels as though we're constantly under surveillance, it's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, being tracked online means we can be targeted with relevant advertising and our problems can be solved with recommended content, for example. But if you are concerned about the amount of data being shared with third parties, you can prevent your browser logging this activity.

The easiest way to stop your activities being tracked is by using private browsing on your device, whether you're using a mobile, laptop, desktop, tablet or any other connected device with a browser installed. Using a private browser keeps your browsing history and data hidden from view and when you close the window, what you've been searching Google or viewing is deleted.

Based on what operating system (OS) your device uses, you can activate privacy capabilities through the default web browsers, whether that's Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge or Apple's Safari.

Not sure how to do it? Here's how to enable private browsing on any device.

Windows tablets, laptops and desktops

All Windows devices use Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) or the much newer Edge (depending on the age of your device) as the default browser. On IE and Edge, private browsing mode comes in the form of InPrivate browsing. To access this, select the More icon, which is displayed as three small dots in the top right of the window, and then select New InPrivate window.

Screenshot of the Microsoft Edge browser's private browsing mode

By enabling this feature, your search history isn't saved nor are temporary internet files such as cookies, browsing history, or form data. However, downloaded files and bookmarks stick around even after you close the InPrivate window.

It's worth noting that Microsoft's browsers also disable any third-party toolbars you might have installed when you start an InPrivate session.

Android smartphones, tablets and Chromebooks

The Android OS uses Google Chrome as its default web browser. To enable a private browsing session on devices using this OS, you need to know that Google Chrome calls its private browsing mode Incognito Mode.

This can be accessed by simply selecting "New Incognito Window" from the top right menu when in the Android Chrome app. You'll be able to tell you're using it by the "secret agent" icon by the change in the colour of the app's top bar to dark grey.

Google Chrome's Incognito mode as shown on an Android device

In Incognito Mode, Chrome won't keep track of the pages you visit, the data you enter into forms, or any searches you submit. However, it's worth noting that Incognito mode only prevents Chrome from saving your site visit activity. It won't stop other sources from seeing what sites you've visited, including your internet service provider; your employer, if you're using a work computer; and the websites you visit themselves.

iOS (iPhone, iPod, iPad and iPad Pro)

To enable Private Browsing in Apple's Safari app for iOS devices, simply open the app, select the tab icon on the bottom right of the screen and tap the Private option that pops up on the bottom left. You'll know you're in private browsing mode when the app's top and bottom toolbars go black instead of white or grey.

Safari's private browsing mode removes temporary files when you close the window. Browsing history, form data, and cookies are all wiped by default.

MacOS: (iMac, Macbook)

Entering private browsing mode on Safari for Mac desktop devices is very similar to doing so on the iOS app. Simply go to File > New Private Window. A window that's using Private Browsing has a dark Smart Search field with white text.

Mozilla FireFox

Mozilla Firefox isn't the default browser for most Android, iOS or Windows devices but it's sometimes pre-installed and if not, is still available to download for all the aforementioned operating systems. The user will usually have to download the app themselves via their operating system's respective app store if they want to use it. It can also be made the default browser for most devices if they so wish.

Mozilla's private browsing feature in FireFox is simply called Private Browsing mode' and offers the same privacy tools as Chrome and Edge. However, FireFox offers an additional tool that others browsers don't to make browsing even safer, and that's called Tracking Protection. This is said to prevent companies from tracking your browsing history across multiple sites so they can't record your browsing habits.

A screenshot of Firefox's private browsing mode

To open a Private Window, tap or click the menu button, which is presented as three horizontal bars in the top right corner of the window, and then select New Private Window. Once in Private Browsing mode, the browser window will display a purple mask at the top.

Any device, any browser

While the above browsers are installed on their respective operating systems as default, it's worth noting that most of the browser apps are available to download across the different devices. For example, you can download the Chrome browser on iPhone and Windows devices despite it being made by Google and the default browser on Android devices.

Not entirely private

When activating private browsing sessions, it's important to bear in mind that browsing and download data can never be entirely private, even though you may make great efforts to protect your data by enabling private browsing mode on different browsers and across all your devices. You may be able to prevent advertisers from tacking your online movements, as well as your Internet Service Provider (ISP), although it's impossible to completely mask your digital presence. This is because whenever your data will be stored in some place anytime you register for an account on a service, make an online purchase or register for a newsletter.

Should this data that is stored online fall into the hands of cyber criminals, if the service you've signed up to is hacked for example, this data can subsequently be distributed across the internet and even sold to other bad actors for a variety of purposes. These may include accessing further personal details or even hijacking your identity. Sadly only a total internet blackout can prevent you from being entirely hidden and safe from your data leaking into the hands of others - malicious or not. But this is much easier said than done, and will require you to disable your Wi-Fi and mobile data on your smartphone, computer, tablet and any other device that might be fitted with networking components.   

Besides cyber attacks, your information can still be distributed online between services, even if it's against your consent. The advent of GDPR has been designed to stamp this practice out, and has in large part improved the situation, but illicit data-sharing still happens. Installing routers, firewalls and proxy servers may help to keep your browsing activity under wraps, as these tools are a step above the privacy that private browsing offers. Containing your digital footprint, of course, is becoming increasingly difficult as time passes, given the growth in the number of household devices that can connect to the internet.

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