The Security Detail

May 7 2011   8:02AM GMT

Who Needs ‘Do Not Track’? Just Surf in Privacy By Default

Tony Bradley Tony Bradley Profile: Tony Bradley

Your privacy while surfing the Web has been a hot topic of conversation in tech circles for the past few months. Government agencies, elected officials, and browser vendors all seem to consider “do not track” initiatives a top priority, but maybe there is a better–and easier–way.

Earlier this year, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) issued a call for action to protect consumer privacy. It suggested that we need to implement a “do not track” framework for users to opt out of having their Web activity and surfing habits monitored, similar to the “do not call” list that lets consumers opt out of being solicited by telemarketers.

Mozilla and Microsoft jumped into the fray with possible browser-based solutions that seek to give consumers more control over whether or not their activity is tracked, and Congress seems to be aggressively pursuing legislation that might spell out the rules of engagement for online tracking efforts.

There is an easier way for the browser vendors to address the problem, though. I don’t know about Safari because I don’t use it outside of my iPhone and iPad, but Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome all have a built-in privacy mode that lets users surf the Web without being tracked or leaving any traces of the Web activity on the PC. IE has ‘InPrivate’, Firefox has ‘private browsing’, and Chrome has ‘Incognito’. The problem with all three browsers is that you have to manually choose to enter the private surfing mode each time.

Granted, there are implications to always surfing in privacy mode. While you may not want just any random site tracking your Web surfing habits, many users enjoy the convenience, and the more interactive experience on sites that are able to recognize you and retain some idea of previous interactions. For example, when I visit Amazon.com it already knows who I am and makes suggestions for purchases based on my other recent purchases or searches on the site. If I only surf in privacy mode, Amazon.com will still work, but without the bells and whistles.

So, surfing in privacy mode by default has some usability tradeoffs, and may not be for everyone, but the browsers should at least make it an option. I should be able to go into the browser options and flip a switch to tell the software to automatically start in privacy mode, with an option to go back to normal Web surfing if I manually select it–essentially flip-flop the way it is currently.

As a side note, if you have Windows 7 and IE9, there is a way to create this for yourself. IE9 lets you pin sites to the Task Bar. If you pin a site to the Task Bar while using InPrivate browsing, the pinned site will open as an InPrivate browsing session by default. So, you could start an InPrivate session, go to your default home page, then pin that site to the Task Bar. Then, just use the pinned site as your default means of opening IE9 and your sessions will be InPrivate by default.

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