Saturday, September 06, 2008

Should parents and companies be concerned? - Private Browsing and “Porn Mode”

I’m posting this as a new article because I feel its an important issue that doesn’t need to be relegated to footnote status on my previous article about Chrome and Internet Explorer


My biggest concern with all the new browsers comes as a mixed emotion. Private browsing was released with Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2 and also with Chrome Beta. It addresses the fact that everyone has things they do on the web that you don’t want others to know about. Whether you’re browsing porn, searching torrents, or reading MySpace at work, these are all obvious reasons you wouldn’t want your history to be tracked. From the personal standpoint of a user, this could be a welcome feature for many in the Internet community, however from other aspects of the Internet community I am worried about the implications of this feature into the browser world.  This could open an entire new Pandora’s box from which we cant go back.


Here are a few scenarios that shed a less glamorous light on the “porn mode” as it has already become known amongst the Internet-at-large community.


Child Safety Online

Parents in this day and age are encouraged to monitor their children’s online activity if they want to know what is going on in their lives. Most of the headlines you read today about children being attacked through the Internet always end up placing blame on parents for not being smart enough to monitor their children’s activity. The sad truth is most of you ten year olds are already smarter than you are when it comes to navigating the web. They do it at school, at friend’s houses, at the library, and just about everywhere you can think of and at places you surely haven’t thought of. Most of them now are doing it on their phones already too. 


Introducing the Private Browsing feature in these new browsers means anything your children do on the Internet can be hidden from you, never tracked in the browser history, never cookied, etc. Basically they can do anything they want online and you won’t know about it. Isn’t this a little counter-intuitive to child safety on the Internet?


Corporate America:

Fans of privacy at the work place are going to love this feature, but I’m not sure it’s something that employees deserve to have on their corporate desktops. I run an IT company that services PCs as part of our service business. Quite frequently we are called in to correct computer problems, over 90% of which are related to something done on the Internet. Last week we were requested to search through the computer of an ex-employee to see if that client’s employee had been misusing resources while at work. Of course they had, but they had also spend most of their unsupervised work time browsing MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites from the confines of their office. Do their employers have the right to be upset? Of course they do! What possible work-related reason would this employee have had for installing MySpace Instant Messenger on their computer? None.


Features like private browsing won’t affect larger corporations who utilize heavy-duty firewall appliances, access lists, block lists, and other tools for making sure users aren’t wasting company time, but the small to medium sized business will be severely hampered in its ability to know what their employees are doing online.


Thoughts From The Peanut Gallery

Advocates of privacy and some of the Internet community are certain to claim that the companies can avoid installing the new browsers and simply avoid the whole issue, which is true, IF they know the safety concerns and are aware of the pitfalls. Microsoft will most assuredly make Internet Explorer 8 a Windows Update just like they did for Internet Explorer 7. Who is going to know NOT download it? It’s from Microsoft so it must be ok!


Companies that have to be HIPAA compliant, SOX compliant, GLB compliant and Red Flag compliant are going to be at the mercy of their staff’s Internet knowledge unless they bite the bullet and install hardware to combat this new trend of privacy freedom. I run an IT company myself, which means I try my best to hire the brightest minds I can find to help serve our customers better. Now I have to police all the work computers to be sure this ISN’T installed because we service clients that require companies like ours to be able to be audited for all our communications, whether email or Internet based to insure that we are meeting the client’s Red Flag or Facta requirements.


How Easy is it to Activate Private Browsing Mode?

Activating InPrivate Browsing in Internet Explorer

It’s scary how easy it is. If you’re running Internet Explorer 8 Beta, simply press Ctrl+Shift+P. That's it. You are immediately transported into an untraceable browser session and greeted with the following message:


“InPrivate Browsing prevents Internet Explorer from storing data about your browsing session. This includes cookies, temporary Internet files, history, and other data.

InPrivate Blocking helps prevent the websites you go to from automatically sharing details about your visit with other websites. To help protect your privacy, some website content might be blocked.

To turn off InPrivate, close this browser window.”


Activating Incognito Mode in Google Chrome

In Google Chrome, pressing Ctrl+Shift+N reproduces almost the same results, with the following message:

“You've gone incognito. Pages you view in this window won't appear in your browser history or search history, and they won't leave other traces, like cookies, on your computer after you close the incognito window. Any files you download or bookmarks you create will be preserved, however.
Going incognito doesn't affect the behavior of other people, servers, or software. Be wary of:

  • Websites that collect or share information about you
  • Internet service providers or employers that track the pages you visit
  • Malicious software that tracks your keystrokes in exchange for free smileys
  • Surveillance by secret agents
  • People standing behind you

Learn more about incognito browsing.”


Google has gone so far in justifying Incognito browsing as to say it’s great to "plan surprises like gifts or birthdays”. I’m sure that’s the FIRST reason someone might think to activate Incognito mode. Yeah, sure!


All in all, though I welcome the innovation I also hope it is tempered with some sense. For example, installing a checkbox option allowing the user to choose to install private modes or not during the installation would be a good start. Requiring private browsing to be an added “program” in the add/remove programs menu would also make it easier for non-savvy users to know what’s going on with their computers at home and at work.


Comments, Feedback? I’m interested to hear.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for that well-written article. Your recommendations are quite sound and I feel, a fair compromise.

    As a technologist, educator and parent I share the same concerns and have been wondering if others might.

    One-click technology that supports the path of least resistance won't make for human progress. What it's doing is accelerating a values shift.

    Paul Khoo


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