Private mode: saving more than just embarrassment

Most internet browsers offer private or incognito browsing that stops other people from seeing some of your internet activity (searches or passwords, for example) when using the same phone or computer. Private mode is more important than you might think and will not only save you embarrassment and money but can actually affect how you think and what you learn. Sounds like a bit of a stretch, right? Well, you’re about to get a shock…


Here are 5 reasons why using private mode when searching the internet is good for you and the world:

1. Your embarrassing or risqué browsing history isn’t saved

Don’t try to tell me that you don’t watch porn. I know you do – everyone does! Using private mode means that your search history won’t be saved on your computer, so that when the next person goes to search something starting with “p”, PornHub won’t be the first suggestion to pop up. (That’s your first suggestion?! You watch a lot of porn!)Private mode is also great if you want to search something else embarrassing, like yourself, without your friends finding out. (Or something awkward like researching divorce without your husband’s knowledge.) Ads are targeted to your searches so if you suddenly see a lot of cruises aimed at “singles”, you might want to have a chat to your significant other.

Just remember: this information is only kind of hidden. Others will still be able to be see it if they’re looking in the right places, as will the sites you visit, whoever pays the bills for the wifi network (e.g., your school, boss, or parents), and your Internet Service Provider. So, it’s not completely hidden. On top of this, your bookmarks and downloads will be saved, which means they can be seen as well.

This is a great quick trick to stop your search history and preferences from being stored when using someone else’s device.


2. You can organise a surprise gift

This is essentially for the same reasons listed above but I didn’t feel right listing ‘surprise’ and ‘porn’ in the same category. In the world of social media and no privacy, it can be a little tough organising a surprise. Private mode can help with that!

3. You can have more than one account open at once

This is so handy when you have multiple accounts with the same organisation. For example, I am a student and staff member at the same university, and every time I would like to check my staff email while in my student account, the system freaks out. So that I don’t have to log out each time, I simply open one account in private mode – simples!


4. You get the best deals

This one seems odd. Why would searching for deals in private mode be different to searching regularly? Cookies! (No, not the delicious kind.) Cookies are small pieces of information stored on your computer. These parcels of information remember things like your preferences or login details for each website. Cookies are why I can start a ‘Guest cart’ while shopping online at The Iconic, close down the browser when I realise I’m waaaaay too poor to be shopping and come back weeks later to see my items are still there.

They also allow websites to provide personalised content, which is great, and also terrifying! Cookies can track your search history and collect information that is a marketer’s dream. This means you see what you want to see – great! – but it also means the website’s algorithm knows what you want – scary! (Browse in private mode if you don’t want to see targeted ads.)

Let’s say you want to ‘find yourself’ in Europe, so you start looking into flights… The website’s cookies store information about your searches, and if it determines the demand for your search is high (because you search multiple times) then the price of the flight will increase – it’s simple supply and demand economics. It’s called ‘dynamic pricing’ and aims to increase revenue for online sales by trying to predict the top price you’re willing to pay.

For example, if you search for a flight from Brisbane to Paris (because you’re cultured) on August 1, 2018, multiple times using a regular browser, then the cookies help the website to determine that you really want to fly from Brisbane to Paris on August 1, 2018, and thus, determines that the demand for that flight has increased. If your demand for that particular flight is that high, then the algorithm thinks you’re willing to pay big bucks, so it will automatically raise the price.

On the other hand, the cookies could tell a different story. If the algorithm determines that you want that flight but are undecided and need some convincing it might reduce the price of the flight as an incentive to purchase. 

So, while using a regular browser with search history could help, it could also backfire. If you use a private browser, however, the cookies aren’t stored, and therefore the price of the flight should remain consistent (in terms of dynamic pricing – the price may change for other reasons).

This means that the same flight on the same day could cost different amounts depending on which type of browser you use. (It doesn’t just work for flights either and can include a variety of goods and services.) Although this is disputed and not entirely proven, consumer groups recommend searching for the same flight multiple times on multiple days using both private and regular browsers. It’s worth it to save a few dollars that can be better spent on a tourist trap boat ride down the Seine.


Lastly, and most importantly, you should use private mode so…

5. You can read more news (and other things behind paywalls)

Paywalls on online news sites require readers to pay for a subscription to the outlet to read certain content. Paywalls are becoming an increasingly common form of revenue for these news and media organisations, and so as not to lose their tight-ass readership entirely, many outlets allow readers a maximum amount of articles before requiring a subscription. For example, The New York Times imposes a 5 article maximum on readers. After you’ve read 5 articles you have to start paying. The websites can track how many articles you have read with the help of our good friend cookies.

However, when using a private browser, once you’ve exhausted your 5 article maximum, you can simply close the browser to clear the cookies and open another private window with 5 more articles to go.

Another great reason to avoid cookies and use a private browser when reading the news is to receive more neutral Google searches. As your cookies track your search history and personalise the content shown to you, you may receive news results based on your interests. These are known as Filter Bubbles and they guess what kind of content you will like based on your location, previous searches, and other information collected. Filter Bubbles can be dangerous because they limit knowledge based on interests and views, meaning people will only see what they want to see. For example, when I search for “US gun” in Google, the top hits are anti-gun, pro-gun law, and Australian-based content. This is because my search history reflects my political and social views. If I were a member of the NRA, however, I would likely receive hits relating to pro-gun topics, gun shows, and other pro-gun content.

If that’s not scary enough, then think about this…

Filter Bubbles, otherwise known as Echo Chambers, may have played a part in deciding the 2016 US Presidential election (among other things, of course). If you have ever heard Donald Trump speak about the media, then you will know he favours Fox News and conservative sites while attacking progressive media organisations. Trump is living in his own Filter Bubble, hearing what he wants to hear and neglecting other opinions.

The dangers of Filter Bubbles and their far-reaching impact have been the subject of much discussion. This TED Talk about the dangers of Filter Bubbles kind of sums it all up…

If you don’t have time, Barack Obama also summed it up quite nicely:

“One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases” – Barack Obama

Simply using a private mode to search news can make a massive difference to the information you receive. Private mode is more than just hiding dodgy searches. Private mode can really make a difference to how you think and, collectively, how the world thinks.

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