We recently covered how to let people use your computer without giving them access to all your stuff using your operating system’s guest mode feature. A faster alternative would be to give them their own, isolated web browser.
The below methods definitely aren’t as secure. Anyone could leave your guest-mode web browser and switch back to your main one or explore your computer’s files. That said, if you aren’t too paranoid, these methods can still be a decent alternative.
Create a Separate Chrome User
Chrome allows you to create separate profiles by adding “users.” Each user has its own history, logins, bookmarks, and other settings.
Note that there’s no protection when switching between users, so any guest could easily switch back to your main Chrome profile without being prompted for authentication. Google warns that this isn’t a way to make your data private, just a convenience for people who would already be sharing Chrome on the same user account.
To create a new Chrome user, open the Settings page from Chrome’s menu, scroll down, and click Add new user.
You’ll be prompted to choose a name and icon for the user. Feel free to name the user “Guest” if you want to create a separate browsing profile for all guests.
Once created, you can switch between users from within Chrome or use a separate desktop shortcut to launch Chrome as a specific user account.
Set Up Another Firefox Profile
You can also set up separate user profiles in Firefox, although this feature is much more hidden. To access it, close all Firefox windows, press Windows Key + R to open the Run dialog, and run the following command:
From Firefox’s profile manager, you can click the Create Profile button to add new user profiles. You can launch Firefox with firefox.exe -p to choose between profiles. You could also uncheck the Don’t ask at startup box to be prompted to choose a user profile each time you start Firefox. Every user profile has its own bookmarks, history, cookies, settings, and other user data.
Use Chrome’s Kiosk Mode
Chrome also includes a kiosk mode that takes over your entire entire screen. It’s intended for web-browsing terminals, but can also be used to give people a full-screen browser that they can’t turn back into a window by pressing F11.
To use this feature, just create a new shortcut to Chrome — you can do this by creating a copy of your existing Chrome shortcut. Right-click the shortcut, select Properties, and add -kiosk to the end of its Target box.
Close all open Chrome windows, then launch your shortcut and Chrome will open in kiosk mode, taking up your full screen. It will still use Chrome’s same browsing data, so you may want to combine this feature with a separate Chrome user profile to really create an isolated browsing environment.
Anyone can still press Alt+F4 to close Chrome or press Alt+Tab to switch to other running applications, so this isn’t the ideal solution for most scenarios. Firefox could also function in kiosk mode with third-party add-ons.
Give Them Another Browser
There’s a good chance you already have multiple browsers on your computer. If a guest wants to use a web browser, you can simply give them a different browser — if you use Chrome or Firefox, let them use Internet Explorer. If you use Internet Explorer, install a browser like Chrome or Firefox and allow them to use it.
Each browser has its own separate bookmarks, cookies, and login state information, so they’ll have their own separate browsing environment as long as they stick to a browser you don’t normally use. There’s no real setup needed here, especially if you already have Internet Explorer installed and never touch it.
Use Incognito or Private Browsing Mode
You can also use your web browser’s incognito or private-browsing mode for your guests. In private-browsing mode, the browser uses separate cookies so your guests won’t be logged into any of your accounts. However, they will have access to your bookmarks, browsing history, and address bar autocomplete entries, so this isn’t the most private option — they may unwittingly stumble across your browser history while typing in the address bar.
When your guest is finished using your computer, they can simply close the incognito window or leave private-browsing mode and they’ll be automatically logged out of any websites they used. Their browsing history will be erased, too. You won’t have to worry about cleaning up the guest profile and ensuring people are logged out of their accounts.
Thanks to our commenters for suggesting some of these ideas in the comments on our previous article! Do note that none of these methods offers the same security as a guest account in your operating system — these are just quick ways to give people you already trust an isolated browser. It would be very easy for them to close the guest browser and use your main browser.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 08/18/13