Private Browsing Mode Confuses Users

Many web users overestimate exactly how private a “private browsing mode” really is according to new research. That’s partly because of confusion in the way browser developers name and explain the modes, which also include “incognito.”

Researchers at the University of Chicago and Leibniz University in Hannover ran a study with 460 participants. Each was shown one of 13 descriptions or explanations of a private mode. Though the text the participants were shown didn’t name the browsers concerned, 12 of the descriptions were real, taken from the desktop and mobile version of five leading browsers and the lesser-known Brave browser. The 13th was a fictional one written for the study to act as a control.

After reading the description, each participant was given twenty scenarios and asked what they thought would happen with the browser. The scenarios were chosen based on previous reports of misconceptions.

The most common misunderstanding in the study was about search history: 56.3 percent wrongly believed that searches carried out in private browsing aren’t logged by the search company concerned.

Other common problems included 46.5 percent wrongly believing that any bookmarks they created during the private browsing mode would disappear when they returned to normal mode. Meanwhile 40.2 percent believed websites couldn’t access the user’s location in private browsing mode.

Some misunderstandings were a bit more of a gray area, with 37 percent believing employers couldn’t track their activity if they used private mode on a work computer. While that’s somewhat true of the computer itself, it doesn’t overcome network logging.

Perhaps most bafflingly 27.1 percent said they believed private browsing increased the protection against malware.

Overall people who read the descriptions in the Brave and Edge browsers were most likely to correctly understand the effects of private mode, while those reading the Safari description were most likely to have misconceptions. Perhaps surprisingly, for almost every browser people reading the description from the mobile version were considerably more likely to correctly understand private mode than those reading the desktop version.

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