Nothing on the internet is really private, but you can keep your Android from saving a trail of where you've been.

We all use our phones differently. While some of us are Twittering and buying socks on Amazon when we're online, other folks are looking at other stuff. And they might not want anyone else who could be using their phone to see the things they have looked at. We don't judge (nobody should, really) but we can help.

We'll start by saying that any type of "private browsing" really isn't private. The way the internet works means someone, somewhere can always see the first connection from your computer (along with your IP address, which is a unique identifier). That means that even if the website you've landed on or the website you came from (along with any ads or other stuff they might have that can target a user or tracks them) can't see who you are, your ISP can. So can someone who is standing behind you, or sitting beside you on the bus. (Don't surf porn sites on the bus. That's creepy.) Chances are nobody is looking for you or has served a warrant to your service provider or VPN company, but you need to know that nothing is private. Even tinfoil can't make you private.

Since we mentioned VPN services, a quick word or two about them. You can use a VPN on your Android. Nerds can set it up manually, but there are plenty of VPN companies with Android apps. That's not what this article is about, but we're just sayin' — you can use a VPN or even TOR on your Android. Your service provider can still see you've connected to a VPN or TOR though. Remember that. Now let's talk about making sure your phone doesn't save things so others can go snooping around for them.

Private tab

This is where words like "Incognito Mode" or "Private Browsing" come into the picture. What that means is that the things you type and the websites you visit don't get saved on your phone as any sort of internet history. Of course, some are better than others.

For starters, don't use Chrome. Chrome is a nice browser with a lot of features, but it has one huge drawback here — it doesn't block ads in the phone version. Blocking advertisements is important because the folks that make them are sneaky and always on the lookout for new tricks to get you to not only click on them but to see if they can't find a way to show them to you again. And some of the folks programming ads on porn sites are total scumbags and inject malware that does shit like change your homepage to something that's just javascript or adds a cookie to do the same, and then pops up a window that says you have a virus and need to send money to the FBI. The FBI doesn't care if you look at porn. But the people who want to trick you into spending $50 to "unlock" your device as a "fine." Block the ads every time you head to a porn site.

I've fiddled with a handful of "private" browsers from Google Play (including Samsung's browser) and think the best thing you can do if you need to keep your internet history in check (and browse safely) is to install Firefox. Mozilla's Firefox for Android has two things going for it that make it the best choice — it's available on all Android brands and it gets almost immediate updates. It also allows you to install Add-ons (browser extensions) to block ads.

The quick updates tie into the malware thing. Chrome also has a pretty fast turnaround when issues are found, as does the Samsung browser, but nobody is as fast at it as Mozilla. And Firefox isn't a horrible browser, either. It can be a little slow to render pages sometimes, but the app is done nicely and the features are great for what we want to do here. Being available for phones from LG or HTC or Motorola or whoever is self-explanatory.

Once you have it installed there are two things you need to do right away — make sure the tracking settings are set to "nope" and disable Cookies, and install the Adblock Plus add-on. You should also look through the rest of the settings and all of the Add-ons, but these are must-haves.

To turn on Private Browsing and Tracking Protection and disable Cookies:

  • Open the Firefox app and tap the menu (the three dots right under your clock) then tap the entry that says "Settings."
  • Tap the "privacy" setting list item.
  • The top three entries are what you want to look at. They are clearly marked as "Do not track", "Tracking protection" and "Cookies."
  • The first two are easy — check the boxes next to Do not track and Tracking protection. For the Cookies setting, just tap the entry and pick "Disabled" from the window that pops up.

To install Adblock Plus:

  • Back on the main window, tap the menu again.
  • Find the "Tools" section and tap it.
  • Tap the "Add-ons" section.
  • When the window opens, choose "Browse all Firefox Add-ons."
  • You'll be sent to the web where all of the Firefox Add-ons live. Scroll down a bit and tap the "Highest Rated" button.
  • Adblock Plus will be somewhere close to the top of the list. Tap its listing and press the green "Add to Firefox" button.

Privacy settings

When you want to surf the web without having anything incriminating kept on your phone, tap the menu in Firefox and choose "New Private Tab." This blocks most of the stuff that can track you and makes sure no history is kept on your phone. Heed the warning that tells you about saving files because those will be in your file browser for anyone to see. We enabled the Do not track settings as protection in case you forget to use a new private browsing tab. Try not to forget to use a new private browsing tab, though.

Will any of this make you "invisible" on the internet? Not even close. But it will keep anyone else from seeing what you were doing (and where you were doing it) if they look through your phone.