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Private Browsing's False Sense of Security

They call it private browsing. Microsoft recently released a beta version of Internet Explorer 8 that offers it. You'll find it in Mozilla's Firefox and the new Google Chrome. Apple's Safari has offered the feature for some time.

But what vendors call private browsing, others call porn mode.

Not everyone who uses private browsing wants to view porn anonymously, but there is a good reason for the name. Private browsing can prevent others who sit down at your computer from seeing what Web sites you've visited, but it doesn't do much to keep more sophisticated sleuths from seeing where you've been and what you've been doing.

When browsers are in privacy mode, they automatically delete search histories, browse histories and page caches. But they do nothing to protect you from hackers or spyware that tracks and reports on your online activities.

"The private-browsing mode avoids embarrassment and prevents your spouse from learning about the surprise gift you're researching for her," said Ray Dickenson, chief technology officer at Authentium. The company offers SafeCentral technology for secure browsing.

"But it doesn't prevent the disclosure of your user names, passwords, credit card numbers and other personal information to criminals," he added. "While we applaud the feature as a valuable tool for users, we're concerned the name will only exacerbate the current explosion of digitally cultivated identity theft by fooling users into thinking they're protected."

Authentium obviously has an interest in warning users about what private browsing does not protect them from, but some degree of paranoia is warranted.

Make no mistake, private browsing is a welcome feature. As vendors say, it can keep your spouse from finding out -- accidentally or otherwise -- about the birthday present you just ordered online. And yes, it can keep your friends, family and co-workers from seeing items in your browser history that you don't want them to see.

But don't get the idea that private browsing offers any real protection from the Internet's more nefarious denizens.

About the Author

William Jackson is the senior writer for Government Computer News (GCN.com).

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