How a Burner Browser Hides My Most Embarrassing Internet Searches

Some inane things I recently searched for from my phone: “how tall is Robert Pattinson,” “Bob Dylan with mustache,” and “Rogue Legacy 2 double jump.” All things that are mildly embarrassing, only momentarily useful, and certainly not a fair representation of who I am as a person. This is one of the reasons I tend to use a “burner browser,” one that doesn’t save any history and is disconnected from my accounts.

I’ve used this dual-browser setup for years so that every random product, trivia, or health-related search doesn’t follow me around for days or weeks. I still use a standard browser for work, where I want a history, saved logins, and other tracking-based conveniences. But by using a burner browser, I’m compartmentalizing the stupidest part of my brain (the part that searches mostly for nonsensical trivia I’ll immediately forget) from the useful part of my brain (the part that had to write this article).

To be clear, a burner browser doesn’t totally stop companies from tracking all the dumb things you search for on your phone throughout the day. Regardless of your browser, your phone releases all sorts of identifying signals, such as your IP address, to potentially tie together your clicks on search results for “Weird Al biopic” with a search for “what is Roku Channel.” But using a privacy-preserving, history-destroying browser for your most unhinged or sensitive searches creates hurdles, if not barriers, for tracking companies.

Firefox Focus is a good option for a burner browser when you need to do a quick sensitive or embarrassing search. You can trash the history with one tap when you’re done. It can autofill addresses from a list of 450 top sites—not from your history—though you can turn that feature off, too.

I use the Firefox Focus app for this purpose because it’s (mostly) private with little setup: It blocks ads and trackers by default, it doesn’t support tabs, and it allows you to delete browsing history with a single tap. I just wish Google weren’t the default search engine. That’s the only thing you need to change, and here’s how:

  1. Tap the three-line icon, and then tap Settings > Search Engine.
  2. Select DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t save searches, tie it to an account, or sell your data to advertisers.

If you don’t like Firefox Focus for some reason, DuckDuckGo has an app that also works well as a burner browser.

As for my desktop, I tend to use the Tor Browser, even though it’s slow. You can set up another browser, such as Firefox, Edge, or Safari, to use more privacy-focused search engines, avoid saving history, and not save cookies or anything else by using its private browsing mode. But they don’t usually block trackers or open a private window by default. Google’s Chrome browser still manages to send all sorts of data to Google even in Incognito mode. You can choose to block ads and trackers all the time, but most people likely want to keep their browsing history and stay logged in to at least a handful of websites, so it’s difficult to suggest taking all of the privacy-preserving approaches that are available for whichever browser you use daily.

None of the above is enough for true anonymity, but it should grant you a smidgen of privacy back, and at the very least, you won’t have any autofill embarrassments when someone peeks over your shoulder while you’re searching for something unrelated and asks, “Earwax removal kits, eh?”

One privacy tip: Remove Google search results

Google introduced a way to request the removal of search results that include personal information about you. Wired has the details on how this removal request works, though the process can be cumbersome if there are a lot of results. If Google approves your request and removes the results, it doesn’t delete the source of the information, but getting that information off the most popular search engine will still certainly make it harder to find.

If you’ve ever searched your name on Google and found your address on sites like Spokeo or Intelius, you can directly request removal from them. For DIYers, journalist Yael Grauer has links to the opt-out forms for the worst offenders. If you can afford to pay for a service to handle this process for you, members of our staff have used both DeleteMe and Kanary with good results, though we haven’t tested the services comparatively as it’s nearly impossible to do so.

Other privacy news we’re watching

🕵️ Privacy concerns over the potential overruling of Roe v. Wade

The release of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Roe v. Wade became a nationwide flash point, creating widespread concern and confusion. The privacy knots have been tough to untangle. To start, TechCrunch clarifies a number of potential privacy concerns involving period apps. Mother Jones has an in-depth explainer covering the variety of digital privacy and security concerns that could crop up in a post-Roe world, and Wired explains the legal pretzel that the big tech companies may face. Gizmodo put together a digital security guide if you live in a state that may potentially ban abortion, and Digital Defense Fund has more tips for keeping an abortion safe and private.

📱 Google announces new privacy and security features coming to its devices

The splashiest part of Google’s I/O conference was the announcement of new products, including new Pixel phones, a Pixel watch, and a Pixel tablet, but Wired details some exciting privacy and security improvements coming in Android 13. Among them are some user-facing changes, including adjustments in the way device permissions are handled, as well as new data-safety labels in the Google Play store. But the OS revision also offers behind-the-scenes improvements such as software development kit transparency and a better pipeline for security updates. Google also announced its own virtual credit card system, which hides your real credit card number for online purchases, similar to the service that Privacy offers.

🔑 Big tech is getting closer to ditching passwords

In an unlikely alliance, Microsoft, Google, and Apple have agreed on a standard to push forward on passwordless sign-in standards. This move would essentially replace user IDs and passwords with your phone for identification, similar to the concept of using physical security keys.

This article was edited by Mark Smirniotis.


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