Web Browser Privacy

Various services offer the concept of private browsing.  In most cases this means that browsing history is kept secret from other users of the same machine not from other systems on the Internet which still collect information about you and where you are located.  These solutions are recommended when sharing the same local machine and in theory when sharing a public computer or access portal.  The problem with public networks is that a user may have only limited control over any privacy settings available.

The nature of web browsing makes any privacy difficult.  A user will submit requests and receive data in return.  This will almost certainly involve both the body receiving that request and the sender storing data.  Some of this such as Session and Cookie data maintains the state of browsing activities.  Cookies can be manually removed from the browser’s machine and Session data is (or should be) lost when the browser is closed.   Although originally designed to maintain state and avoid entering the same data again and again these are often exploited for advertising and user tracking.  Other information may be openly harvested from web forms or covertly recorded from browser location and activity.  Finally additional software such as plug-ins will harvest data either for benign means or otherwise.

Although there appear to be many web browsers available only a small number are in common use so the actual privacy options and controls are limited.  Many are based on the Google Chromium code engine.  These include the popular Chrome, Opera and Microsoft Edge browsers.  Notable popular alternatives that are not based on Chromium include Safari and Firefox.

Modern browsers offer the option of incognito or private browsing.  These systems minimise the data that is recorded locally but are unable to control tracking and information that is stored by the server.  They primarily work by minimising the data stored in local Cookies and passed to server logs.  This has the disadvantage in requiring some web data such as page settings and passwords to be constantly re-entered.  The upside is that there are only limited local records stored of what the browser has been searching for and looking at on the web.   If this data does not exist it cannot be passed on for use in targeted adverts or user profiling.

A step beyond incognito browsing are the services such as Tor which encrypts data and routes traffic to deliberately hide where it originates from.  Tor is often used to access sites that are blocked by local ISPs possible under Government directives.  Adverts may still be served but their location or language is unlikely to be related to the user.

Kindus has discussed the role of ad-blockers which can control what is shown by a browser at a cost of additional software that may harvest data for its own ends.  There is also the risk that some sites would detect the presence of an ad-blocker and refuse to load unless these are disabled.

Another step up is the VPN (Virtual Private Network), TOR is not a VPN as it is not strictly private but offers a similar means of protection.  A true VPN includes encryption and tunnels data through routers to hide location data.  VPNs are commonly used to securely access corporate data from remote locations. They can also be used for ‘confidential’ web browsing either as a plug-in or within a dedicated VPN browser such as Opera GX or Brave.

A final means of hiding data is to run a portable browser from within a stand-alone operating system, often run from a USB data drive or through a web-based portal.  It would be expected that any public machine would block any such activities and if it does the user ought to consider what other people may have done to or with that machine.

To conclude the restrictions that can be set on data harvested by web pages are quite limited unless you have full control to add or modify programs running on the local device.  The best way to protect privacy is to minimise any data that is entered through web forms.  Also think twice before installing any programs or extensions as these could be harvesting data either for directly malicious ends or as a means of monetising the product.  Once data harvesters have control of your data they could sell it on and although there are means to remove it this can require significant effort.

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