I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me: The Limitations of Incognito Mode and Other Private Browsing.

In a suspicious world full of cynicism and fear of invasion of privacy, people are surprisingly willing to accept superficial promises of security. Every day, I talk to people who watch porn, and every day, they tell me that they use Incognito mode, or some other private mode that corresponds to their browser, to keep their activities between themselves and nobody else. I always wonder, however, if they’ve ever noticed that the videos on their favorite sites always seemed to correspond to their viewing tastes. The thing is, private browsing certainly stops your device from logging your activity, but that doesn’t mean the websites you’re accessing aren’t.

Most people turn on their device, open a preferred browser, and go online. Their browser has a unique identifier that tells the website you’re visiting who you are. It is super easy to track, especially when your IP address isn’t hidden. When you use Incognito/private browsing modes, it doesn’t erase this identifier. So, even though private browsing may not give personal information, this footprint, if you will, can be traced to you from your previous activity on any other website. If you use any kind of website that you have a personal account with (like say, Facebook), or have entered personal information into, the link between you and your porn habits is much less secret than you probably imagined. With that tenuous veil, a list of your porn habits wouldn’t be super hard to obtain.

Last summer, Daniel Hodges became a name well known around the internet when his best man colluded with Pornhub to create a very personal wedding toast.  We don’t know how Danny browsed porn, but we do know that Pornhub seemed to know an awful lot about his viewing habits. Let’s say for the sake of the argument, he was watching without a Pornhub account in Incognito mode, could they still have known all of this about him? Well, yes. You see, when you browse in Incognito mode, it stops the activity from being saved to the device you’re using, but you’re probably still logged into your Google account. This means that your activity is still available. You signed out of Google or aren’t using it in the first place? What about your temporary files created from portions of the webpages you’re viewing? When you erase that, you still have the information your ISP tracks about your activity, and even if you cover that up with a VPN, it’s still tracking you, and that information can be traced back to you and released. Then, you have to consider the fact that the website itself is tracking you. You’ve probably noticed when you go to porn sites, you get demographically relevant advertising. Adult sites are heavily reliant on advertising revenue (that’s why you can get porn for free), so even when they claim to be privacy-oriented, realize that not collecting any of your data and still offering tons of free porn don’t jive.

Expert opinions vary from considering it inevitable that peoples’ porn viewing histories will eventually be available in a list to much less alarming stances, but they all agree that your private browsing isn’t really private. Websites collecting data, especially for advertising purposes, is not unique to porn sites, but people are significantly less concerned about their Youtube history being private than their Pornhub history. The moral of the story seems to be that if you’re embarrassed or ashamed of the porn you’re watching, you should probably stop because whatever you’re doing to keep it a secret probably isn’t enough.

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