Most modern browsers offer a feature called “privacy mode.” It is touted as a privacy feature, though there are caveats and limitations. It is very useful, though, for troubleshooting web site or browser issues.
What is Private Browsing?
Google Chrome calls it incognito window, Mozilla Firefox refers to it as private window, and Apple Safari calls it a privacy mode. Even though they use different names, each is doing essentially the same thing. Privacy mode ignores pre-existing cookies and cache files and puts the new files into a temporary space that is deleted as soon as the private browsing session is closed.
Private browsing as a troubleshooting step
Private browsing gives you a “fresh start” with a web page in case something has gone wrong. Errors and misconfigurations held in cookies or cached files will no longer apply. It’s also why this mode is helpful! Instead of having to clear your browser cache, which can involve wading through several layers of settings windows, you can open a new “private” window and achieve the same effect.
Experts only: What is meant by “private”
Once you’re done browsing in the private window, you can just close it. All information about that session is discarded. However, there are some important caveats to this:
- information stored server-side is unaffected, IP-based tracking techniques can still identify a computer using private browsing.
- some browser plugins (notably Flash) do not properly honor privacy mode.
For these reasons, do not treat privacy mode as complete privacy -- it just prevents some information being stored on the computer being used at the time.
Privacy mode by browser
In Mozilla Firefox, open a Private Browsing window from the Options menu in the upper-right corner. Or by pressing Ctrl+Shift+P on the keyboard (as shown on right).
Once the Private window is open, look for the masquerade ball mask icon in the upper right corner to confirm that you are in privacy mode.
The process is similar for Google Chrome. Select the Options menu from the upper right corner and choose New incognito window or press Ctrl+Shift+N on the keyboard.
When the incognito window opens, the background will be a dark charcoal grey, and the incognito icon will appear in the upper right corner, as pictured here.
For Apple Safari, select the File menu from the upper left corner and choose New Private Window or press Command+Shift+N on the keyboard.
When the private window opens, the background will be a dark charcoal grey, with the URL in white text as pictured here.
When to use privacy mode
There are a number of times when privacy mode comes in handy -- here are a few!
- For any problem where you might normally want to “try a different browser” -- you can try a private window instead, for all of the reasons listed above.
- If a web site is “remembering” custom settings or even a login you’ve used previously, you can make a fresh start by using a private window.
- If a web page view is wonky -- garbled text, improper formatting, for almost any unexpected behavior -- a private window may offer you at least a temporary workaround.
If you have questions about private windows, contact the LTS Help Desk at 610-758-4357 or firstname.lastname@example.org.