Privacy is a hot topic, and our web browsers are at the center of most of our privacy battles. The first web browser that launched the private mode was Safari for Mac OS, in 2005. Since then, all the major web browsers have developed a “private browsing” mode. The privacy delivered by each browser has significant differences, and all of them fall short of our expectations about what it means to browse the web privately. In this opinion article, we want to advocate a list of features that can increase, in meaningful ways, the concept of private browsing. Here is what we would like all web browsers to offer, in their private browsing modes:
1. VPN should be available and turned-on, for private browsing
VPN has its origins in a 1996 protocol named PPTP (or Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol), and it has become an established standard for security and privacy. VPN encrypts your internet traffic which means that when your internet service provider or anyone else tries to track your activity, they won’t understand the data going through the VPN connection. The only popular web browser that implements VPN in its private browsing mode is Opera. When you open a private window in the Opera browser, you have a VPN button that you can click to start a VPN session.
The gripe we have with Opera is that the service is not started automatically when using private browsing and that the VPN service is not configurable. We would love for all the major web browsers to:
- Partner with a trustworthy VPN provider and offer VPN by default, in their private browsing modes. It is OK for them to ask for a fee, and provide an excellent VPN service.
- The VPN service should start automatically when you enter private browsing.
- You should be able to configure the VPN service a bit so that it works as you need.
Well done Opera, for being a positive example, albeit an imperfect one.
2. Enable a private search engine as the default
Browsing the web and using search have become intertwined. The address bar has become an internet search box, and you find yourself searching for websites directly from this place. Google is the quintessential search engine of the internet with a market share that goes above 90%. Google is also the big bad wolf when it comes to privacy. When you want to go private, you want your searches to remain private as well. The Vivaldi web browser is an excellent example in this area. It lets you specify a separate search engine for its private browsing windows.
Moreover, Vivaldi sets DuckDuckGo as the default private search engine from the moment you install it. You can also set Vivaldi to use other private search engines, like Qwant for example. We love this approach, and all web browsers should embrace it.
3. Disable trackers and tracking cookies
One of the loopholes of private browsing is that during the private session, the collection of your data is not stopped. Yes, the data is dumped the moment you finish your private browsing session, but during its course, the snooping elements, called trackers, keep gathering information about your activity.
Firefox is an excellent example of protecting against trackers. Its feature was called initially Tracking Protection, and it has been renamed Content Blocking. The idea is that web content, cookies, or scripts can collect what you are doing in a private browsing session. The Content Blocking feature in Firefox ensures this collection is not happening when you use Private Browsing.
Thumbs up Firefox! All web browsers should copy this approach for their private browsing modes.
4. Disable extensions by default, yet allow users to enable the ones they trust
One of the weak points of your privacy protection in web browsers is the extensions (or add-ons). Some of the extensions provided by third-party developers can freely track what you are doing at all times, including during private browsing. Unfortunately, in our web browsers, the privacy settings of the browser do not extend automatically to the extensions that the user has installed. The browser’s extensions should not have access to your private browsing sessions, by default. Opera is again a positive example.
Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge behave nicely as well, disabling extensions by default in their private browsing modes (Incognito and InPrivate). The big offender in this area is Firefox. This browser does not disable extensions in Private Browsing, and it should do that to better protect its users.
5. Block the restoration of closed tabs while browsing privately
Restoring closed tabs is a handy feature in a standard web browsing session. In private browsing, it can be used to break the privacy protection and bring back your closed tabs. Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Opera behave correctly by disabling the restoration of closed tabs when using private browsing.
Firefox is again the only offender, as it allows the restoration of closed tabs, at all times.
6. Clear the clipboard so that others cannot paste the last item(s) that you copied
Using the clipboard has become second nature when dealing with computers, tablets, or smartphones. We copy information into the clipboard all the time without paying attention.
When you work in a private browsing session, you may copy into the clipboard information that you want to keep private. On a shared computer, someone else can paste the content of the clipboard, and break your privacy. For this reason, we propose that the clipboard should be cleared of its content acquired in a private browsing session after you close the private browsing windows that you were using.
7. Create bookmarks that always load in a private browsing window
A substantial chunk of our web browsing is initiated through bookmarks. The most used websites find their way into our bookmarks. When creating a bookmark to a specific page, we would love to set our web browser to always open that page in a private browsing window, without any other intervention from the user. We did not find browsers that allow this setting. The closest you can get is to right-click or tap and hold on a bookmark and then choose to open the bookmark in a new private window.
The problem is that you need to do this every time you use the bookmark. Many users would love to store some sites in their bookmarks and make sure that they always load in private browsing. Wouldn’t you love to have this feature for some of the sites that you visit?
What other suggestions do you have for improving private browsing?
Being able to use private web browsing modes is a great addition to all the major web browsers. However, these modes are far from perfect and need improving. We think that the ideas shared in this article can have a significant positive impact. Before closing this article, tell us what you think. Do you like our ideas? Do you have other suggestions for improving private web browsing? Comment below and let’s discuss.