Clean your online tracks using Internet Explorer, Firefox and Google Chrome. We show how to delete cookies, browser history and more
Your PC records lots of information when visiting a web page. An entry will be added to the browser’s history, for example. At the same time, numerous revealing cookies might be stored on the hard disk, along with countless temporary files. Indeed, the browser might even take it upon itself to save any passwords you may use to log in to websites.
While this information-gathering can be both legitimate and useful, sometimes browsing is best done in private. To this end, all the popular web browsers have comprehensive tools for erasing the files and information stored when you visit websites – but locating and using them isn’t always straightforward.
In this workshop we will explain how to cover your tracks in the latest versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Google Chrome, starting with the basics and working up to the more interesting options.
To delete your browser history in Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), click Tools and choose Delete Browsing History. Alternatively, with IE9 open, press Control (Ctrl), Shift and Delete (Del) on your keyboard. In either case, the dialogue box that appears has lots of options for removing revealing information from your PC. If you are not interested in what any of them do then just tick all the boxes and click Delete. However, we would suggest reading the next step for more insight.
The first option (Preserve Favorites website data) sits above a dividing line for good reason: the related data does a lot to speed up surfing and, while it may contain revealing information, it relates only to items marked as Favorites. Unless deleting all your Favorites at the same time, there is little point deleting this stuff – so we suggest leaving it ticked. (This is a little confusing because the remaining boxes must be ticked to indicate which stuff is indeed to be deleted, rather than preserved.) The next five options include reasonably clear explanations but we will cover the last – InPrivate Filtering Data – in Step 10. When you have made your selections, click Delete and for now, that’s essentially that – IE9 will remove private surfing information.
Firefox users should click Tools in the main menu bar and then on Clear Recent History. Alternatively, use the keyboard shortcut Control, Shift and Delete. Much like IE9 (see Steps 1 and 2), there are various options to select what type of information to delete. If you are in a hurry, choose Everything from the ‘Time range to clear’ dropdown menu, tick the boxes next to the content you want to delete and then click Clear Now.
However, it may be wise to be more selective. The ‘Time range to clear’ dropdown menu includes options for deleting content from the last hour, two hours, four hours or the current day. This is useful for removing recent sensitive browsing activities, while preserving a history built up over a longer period. You might, for instance, use this option if you have spent the afternoon shopping for a birthday present and want to cover just these tracks.
For similar options, Chrome users should click the spanner icon at the top right and choose History from the dropdown menu. History entries can be removed by clicking to place ticks alongside those you wish to delete before clicking the Remove selected items button (and then OK to confirm). Alternatively, for a wider broom click ‘Clear all browsing data’. The process here is similar to IE9 and Firefox. The Clear Browsing Data dialogue box has a dropdown menu to select the period of browsing data to be deleted, from the past hour to everything (which Chrome calls ‘the beginning of time’). Below this are tick-boxes for deleting specific types of information such as download history, cookies and passwords.
The three main browsers all have more advanced options for deciding how browsing data is stored in the first place. In IE9, select Tools followed by Internet Options. Now select the General tab and notice the ‘Delete browsing history on exit’ option in the Browsing history section: click to tick this and IE9 will do just that every time the browser is closed. This means that everything you look at in one sitting will be stored, but only until you close the browser. For more options, click the Settings button in the Browsing history section. At the bottom of this dialogue box is an option for specifying how long a browser history should be stored, which can be set anywhere between 0 and 999 days.
Now select the Content tab in E9’s Internet Options dialogue box and then click the Settings button in the AutoComplete section. Here you can decide the information that’s available to the AutoComplete function, which helps you browse more quickly by suggesting previously entered terms. While this can be helpful, it can obviously be very revealing to anyone else that may use the computer. To disable this function, remove the ticks from all the boxes and then click Delete AutoComplete history. Click OK to confirm the new settings.
Firefox has a few additional options. Click Tools followed by Options and select the Privacy tab. At the top of this window is an option labelled ‘Tell websites I do not want to be tracked’; ticking this prevents some websites from displaying advertising and other information based on your browsing habits. Firefox sends what it calls a ‘Do Not Track’ notice every time you visit a website, preventing it from doing so. Visit Mozilla's website for more information about this feature.
Below this, in the History section, are options to control how Firefox remembers web history. By default Firefox will remember every site visited, download made, search executed and form filled in. To change this, open the dropdown menu and choose either to have Firefox never remember the web history or use custom settings (‘Use custom settings for history’). Ticking the ‘Clear history when Firefox closes’ box will enable the Settings button to the right: click this to decide which information, if any, Firefox should keep when it is closed.
The latest versions of all three main browsers now include ‘private browsing’ modes, which can be used when required. Internet Explorer’s InPrivate Browsing option, for example, prevents the browser from storing data about what you have been visiting online – so cookies and temporary internet files won’t be stored, while websites visited won’t find their way into the browser history. Toolbars and add-ons/extensions are also disabled in this mode. The advantage is that it does away with a lot of the hassle of deleting internet files after the fact. Firefox users should skip to Step 12 and Chrome fans to Step 13 but if you use IE9, read on.
To activate IE9’s InPrivate Browsing click Tools and then select InPrivate Browsing. A new window will open explaining the feature. Now activated, InPrivate Browsing acts exactly like the normal instance of Internet Explorer, with only browser extensions disabled. This means no data will be stored but you will still be able to use the internet normally. A small InPrivate label in the address bar confirms InPrivate Browsing is activated. Once this window is closed, you will no longer be browsing in private and normal settings will be restored. (For even more protection, choose InPrivate Filtering from the Tools menu; this prevents certain websites from building up a picture of your surfing habits, and doesn’t require InPrivate Browsing mode).
There is a similar feature in Firefox, called Private Browsing. To try this, open the Tools menu and choose the Start Private Browsing option: a warning box will open saying that a new window will be opened for the private browsing session. Like Internet Explorer, Private Browsing in Firefox ensures that anything done in this session won’t be stored on your computer. To exit Private Browsing click Tools and choose Stop Private Browsing, or close Firefox.
In Chrome, private browsing is called Incognito. To use Incognito mode, click on the spanner icon in the top-right corner of Chrome and select New incognito window (or use the keyboard shortcut Control, Shift and N). A new Chrome browser window appears, with an explanation of what this private-browsing function can do. In short, all files, cookies, history entries and the like won’t be stored, so everything you look at while in Incognito mode will remain hidden.
Amusingly, Chrome points out that Incognito mode won’t hide you from surveillance by secret agents or people standing behind you. More seriously, it stops any information being stored locally for the duration of that browsing session. The interface in Google Chrome changes slightly when in Incognito mode – the main difference being the appearance of a man in a hat and dark glasses appearing in the top left-hand corner. As with Firefox and Internet Explorer, once the Incognito window is closed, you will no longer be in Incognito mode.
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