In a recent study, researchers at the University of Chicago and Leibniz University in Hannover wanted to know exactly how much internet users understand about how private modes in web and mobile browsers – and it’s even worse than you’d expect.
In a paper titled Your Secrets Are Safe: How Browsers’ Explanations Impact Misconceptions about Private Browsing Mode, the six researchers (one of whom’s last name is Gupta, not that it’s relevant or is it, cue X-Files music) wanted to find out whether, and to what extent the descriptions of browsers’ privacy modes helped or hindered users in knowing what information was protected. The browsers used were Firefox, Chrome, Edge (seriously), Opera, Safari, and Brave. The mobile and web descriptions were given separately, making a total of 12 real world examples, then an additional description was given as a control. So, what were the results?
Overall, mobile descriptions led to less misinterpretations than web ones.
A whopping 27.1% of respondents believed private browsing helped protect them from viruses.
25.2% thought that websites couldn’t access their IP addresses when visited in private mode.
37% believed their employers and ISPs and the government couldn’t track them in private mode.
10 out of the 460 participants actually believed the government would need a warrant to access information browsed in private mode. I’m not even kidding; it’s in the paper on page 7.
40.2% thought their location was hidden, with 21 people specifying that the reason was because IP addresses, used for geolocation, were hidden.
56.3% believed that even if you log into a Google account, your search queries won’t be saved if you’re in private mode.
144 thought that because they equated the browser’s local history, to Google’s well… Googleness.
77 believed it was because your search history was retroactively removed.
There’s more, and it doesn’t really get better. Basically what I take away from this is that descriptions of privacy mode are clearly kind of crap and also that people don’t really understand the internet, or corporations. Or the government – yes, any government. And now you’re on a list.
To read the results yourself, check out the paper in PDF format here.