Managing History and Other Private Data in Safari for OS X

safari os x private browsing data
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This article is only intended for Mac users running OS 10.10.x or above.

Released in late 2014, OS X 10.10 (also known as OS X Yosemite) featured a fairly significant redesign of the traditional OS X look and feel. Designed with visuals more in step with iOS, this new coat of paint is immediately evident when using the operating system's native apps -- no more so, perhaps, than in its Safari browser. 

One area affected by the revamped UI involved how to manage your private information such as browsing history and cache, as well as how to activate Safari's Private Browsing mode. Our tutorial details everything that you need to know regarding this potentially sensitive data, including how to remove it from your hard drive. We also walk you through Safari's Private Browsing mode, which allows you to freely surf the Web without leaving remnants of your session behind.

First, open your Safari browser.

Private Browsing Mode

Safari for OS X provides the ability to open a private session at any time. While browsing the Web, the application stores multiple data components on your hard drive for later use. This includes, but is not limited to, a record of the sites that you've visited along with site-specific user details. This data is then utilized for a number of purposes like automatically customizing page layout the next time you visit.

There are ways to limit the types of data that Safari saves on your Mac as you browse, which we will explain later in this tutorial. However, there may be times where you want to start a browsing session where no private data components are stored -- sort of a catch-all scenario. On these occasions, Private Browsing mode is exactly what you need.

To activate Private Browsing mode, first, click on File -- located in the Safari menu at the top of your screen. When the drop-down menu appears, select New Private Window.

Please note that you can utilize the following keyboard shortcut in lieu of this menu item: SHIFT + COMMAND + N

Private Browsing mode has now been enabled. Items such as browsing history, cache, cookies, as well as AutoFill information are not stored on your hard drive at the end of a browsing session, as they normally would be otherwise.

It should be noted that Private Browsing is only enabled in this specific window and any other Safari windows that were opened via the instructions detailed in the previous step of this tutorial. If a window was not designated as private, any browsing data accumulated within it will be saved on your hard drive. This is an important distinction to make, as enabling Private Browsing mode in previous versions of Safari would encompass all open windows/tabs. To determine whether or not a particular window is indeed private, look no further than the address bar. If it contains a black background with white text, Private Browsing mode is active in that window. If it contains a white background with dark text, it is not enabled.

History and Other Browsing Data

As we have already discussed above, Safari saves your browsing history and also permits websites to store a variety of data components on your hard drive. These items, some of which are detailed below, are used to improve your future browsing experience by speeding up page load times, reducing the amount of typing required, and much more.

Safari groups a number of these items into a category titled Website Data. Its contents are as follows.

  • Browsing history: Each time you visit a website, Safari stores a record of each page's name and URL.
  • Cache: Used to speed up page loads on subsequent visits, the cache is comprised of image files and other Web page components.
  • Cookies: Messages passed from a Web server to Safari, cookies are stored on your hard drive in the form of small text files -- used on future visits to identify you and customize your browsing experience. Login credentials and other private data are also sometimes stored in cookies.
  • Download History: Each time a file is downloaded through the browser, Safari stores a record containing the file name, size and date/time of download.
  • Local Storage: Allows sites coded with HTML5 to store Web application data locally without having to utilize cookies, greatly improving performance in some instances.

To view which websites have stored data on your hard drive, take the following steps. First click on Safari, located in the browser's main menu at the top of your screen. When the drop-down menu appears, select Preferences.... You can also utilize the following keyboard shortcut in lieu of the previous two steps: COMMAND + COMMA(,)

Safari's Preferences interface should now be displayed. Click on the Privacy icon. Safari's Privacy preferences are now visible. In this step, we are going to concentrate on the section labeled x web sites stored cookies or other data, which is accompanied by a button labeled Details...To see each site that has stored information on your hard drive, along with the type of data stored, click on the Details... button.

A list of each individual site that has stored data on your hard drive should now be displayed. Directly below each site's name is a summary of the type of data that has been stored.

This screen not only allows you to scroll through the list or search it using keywords but also provides the ability to delete stored data on a site-by-site basis. To delete a particular site's data from your Mac's hard drive, first select it from the list. Next, click on the button labeled Remove.

Manually Delete History and Private Data

Now that we have shown you how to delete stored data on an individual site basis, it's time to discuss clearing all of it from your hard drive at once. There are multiple ways to accomplish this, and they are as follows.

  • Remove browsing history and website data by time period: Perhaps you only want to remove data that has been stored over the past hour or couple of days. Safari allows for this, letting you choose from four different time intervals before clearing this information from your hard drive. To take this approach click on Safari, located in the browser's main menu at the top of your screen. When the drop-down menu appears, select the option labeled Clear History and Website Data. A dialog window should now be visible, offering the following options: the last hourtodaytoday and yesterday, and all history. To delete history and website data from one of these time periods, first select the desired option and then click on the Clear History button.
  • Remove all browsing history and website data: If you'd like to delete all history and website data, regardless of when it was stored, then this is the route to take. There are a couple of different ways to achieve this, in addition to selecting the all history option. The first is via the individual website data details dialog, discussed above. Instead of selecting the Remove button, simply click on Remove All. The second method is found on the Privacy preferences screen, in the form of a button labeled Remove All Website Data.... All three paths essentially achieve the same result.

Always use caution when deleting everything in one fell swoop, as your future browsing experience may be directly affected in many cases. It is imperative that you fully understand what you are removing before taking this action.

Please note that history and website data does not encompass saved usernames, passwords, and other AutoFill-related information. Managing those data components is covered in a separate tutorial.

Automatically Delete History and Other Private Data

One of the unique features found in Safari for OS X, in terms of your browsing and download history, is the ability to instruct your browser to automatically delete browsing and/or download history after a user-specified period of time. This can prove to be quite useful, as Safari can perform housekeeping on a regular basis without any intervention on your part.

To configure these settings, take the following steps. First click on Safari, located in the browser's main menu at the top of your screen. When the drop-down menu appears, select Preferences.... You can also utilize the following keyboard shortcut in lieu of the previous two steps: COMMAND + COMMA(,)

Safari's Preferences interface should now be displayed. Click on the General icon if it is not already selected. For the purposes of this functionality, we are interested in the following options, each accompanied by a drop-down menu.

  • Remove history items: The default option, After one year, ensures that Safari automatically deletes browsing history records that are one year old. Other available options include After one dayAfter one weekAfter two weeksAfter one month, and Manually. When selected, the latter option completely disables automatic deletion of browsing history.
  • Remove download list items: The default option, After one day, deletes the record of a downloaded file one day after it was obtained. The second available option, When Safari quits, removes all download history each time you close the application. The third, Upon successful download, deletes any record of a downloaded file the instant the download is completed. The fourth and final option, Manually, disables automatic removal of your file download history.

Please note that this particular feature only removes browsing and download history. Cache, cookies and other website data is not affected/removed.