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Anonymous Web Browsers are Really Semi-Private

David Silversmith
David Silversmith

Many users, especially people at work or public computers, use the new "private" browsing modes found in all the major browsers, but research has revealed that private really is semi-private at best.

Researcher at Stanford University's Computer Science Security Lab revealed in a presentation at the USENIX security conference (aka geek meet) that the private browsing modes of the major web browsers are not as anonymous as the manufacturers will lead you to believe. The study examined the top browsers: Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), Google's Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's Safari.

While the names change, InPrivate Browsing with IE, Incognito with Chrome and Private Browsing with Firefox and Safari, the goal with all of these modes was to make it impossible for other users to figure out the sites visited by the browser as well as preventing sites from being able to track returning visitors.

The researchers have found that privacy protection is imperfect due to the fact that browsers did not properly differentiate their private sessions with the non-private ones. So specially crafted sites can exploit this to track visitors between the two modes.

Another trick is to access the cached DNS resolution history, which without getting too geeky is a log of website addresses kept by the operating system and not the browser.  This could allow somebody to determine if a user has visited a particular site thus defeating its goal of achieving anonymous web browsing.

In addition, the use of software that extends a browser's capabilities, called add-ons or plug-ins, also complicate anonymity. In the anonymous mode IE and Chrome disable all plug-ins by default - though you can still activate them.  Firefox does not even deactivate them, potentially making it even easier to leak information via log files or other data that are written to disks.

Overall, the study concludes: "Current private browsing implementations provide privacy against some local and web attackers, but can be defeated by determined attackers."  Though, without laws on computer and browser privacy, these anonymous modes are your best bet to remain as private as possible.  Well, not going online is your best bet - but then you wouldn't be reading this!

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