Using Private Browsing on iPhone

Private Browsing on iPhone
image credit Gary Waters/Ikon Images/Getty Images

We leave digital footprints everywhere we go online. Whether that's by logging into a website or having advertisers track us, it's hard to be totally incognito on the web. That's true in your web browser, too. Any browsing session leaves behind information like what sites you've visited in your search history.

In most cases, we accept that and it's no big deal. But depending on what we're browsing, we may prefer not to have our browsing or search history saved and viewable by others.

In that case, you need to use Private Browsing.

Private Browsing is a feature of the iPhone's Safari web browser that prevents your browser from leaving some of the digital footprints that would normally follow your movement online. But while it's great for erasing your history, it doesn't offer complete privacy. 

Requirements:

  • An iPhone or iPod touch
  • iOS 5 or higher.

What Private Browsing Keeps Private

When turned on, Private Browsing:

  • Does not save any records of your browsing history
  • Does not save passwords
  • Does not allow autocompletion of saved usernames and passwords
  • Does not retain search history
  • Prevents some websites from adding tracking cookies to your device.

What Private Browsing Can't Block

While it blocks those things, Private Browsing doesn't offer total, bulletproof privacy. What can it not block?

  • Your device's IP address and any related data
  • If you save a bookmark while in a private session, it will be visible in normal browsing mode
  • Anyone who is monitoring the traffic on the network you're connected to may be able to see what pages you visit (this is most likely to happen if you're at work or using a work-issued device)
  • The websites you connect to can see your device and behavior on their site
  • The servers that those websites reside on can see your device and behavior
  • If your device includes monitoring software (most likely to happen on a device supplied by your company), it will likely not stop that software from recording your activity.

How to Turn On Private Browsing

About to do some browsing that you don't want saved on your device? Here's how to turn it on:

  1. Tap Safari to open it
  2. Tap the new window icon in the bottom right corner (it looks like two overlapping rectangles)
  3. Tap Private
  4. Tap the + button to open a new window.

You'll know you're in private mode because the Safari window surrounding the web page you're visiting turns gray.

How to Turn Off Private Browsing

To turn off Private Browsing:

  1. Tap the address bar at the top of the Safari window or swipe down to reveal the icons at the bottom of the window
  2. Tap the new window icon 
  3. Tap Private
  4. The Private Browsing window disappears and any other windows that were open in Safari before you started Private Browsing reappear. 

One Major Warning in iOS 8

You use Private Browsing because you don't want people to see what you've been looking at, but in iOS 8 there's an important catch.

If you turn on Private Browsing, view some sites, and then tap the Private Browsing button to turn it off, all the windows you had open are saved.

The next time you tap Private Browsing to enter that mode, you'll see all the windows that were open during your last private session. This means that anyone can see the sites you left open—not very private.

To prevent this, always make sure to close your browser windows before exiting Private Browsing. To do that, tap the X in the top left corner of each window. Only after they're all closed should you exit Private Browsing.

This issue only applies to iOS 8. In iOS 7, you're be asked if you want to close all windows before exiting Private Browsing. In iOS 9 and up, the window is automatically closed when you turn off Private Browsing, so there's nothing to worry about.

 

A Smaller Warning: Third-Party Keyboards

If you use a third-party keyboard on your iPhone, you should pay attention to it when it comes to private browsing, too. Some of these keyboards capture the words you type and use that information to make autocomplete and spellcheck suggestions. That's useful, but they also capture words you type in Private Browsing sessions and may suggest them in normal browsing mode. Again, not terribly private.

To avoid this, use the iPhone's default keyboard during Private Browsing. 

Is It Possible to Disable Private Browsing?

If you're a parent, the idea of not being able to know what sites your child is visiting on their iPhone may be worrisome. So you may be wondering if the Content Restriction settings built into the iPhone can prevent your kids from using this feature. Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Restrictions can allow you to disable Safari or block explicit websites (though this doesn't work for all sites), but not to disable private browsing. 

If you want to prevent your kids from keeping their browsing private, your best bet is to use Restrictions to disable Safari and then install a parental-control web browser app like: