Who Can See Your Browsing History?
Who Can See Your Browsing History?
When you read the news about data being stolen in hacking breaches, it’s natural to worry about your online security. But do you think about all the ways your browsing history is being logged, archived and used? You’re already careful about using strong passwords and two-step verification, but are you taking all the steps you should to keep your personal data safe?
We have good news. Although internet privacy feels like an oxymoron, there are ways you can protect yourself and be proactively vigilant. We’ll help you understand the key areas of vulnerability for anyone browsing the internet and what you can learn to do to prevent misuse of your information and browsing activity.
Your ISP is Watching
Let’s take a look at who could be accessing your browsing history in order of their significance to your overall security. Although your computer itself can become a culprit and there are bad actors who might be prowling for your information, it is your ISP (internet service provider) who should cause you some concern.
ISPs track and log all the internet traffic flowing through them. When your computer processes your browsing instructions through your router and internet connection, your ISP knows exactly what you’re doing and where you’ve been. Your ISP can provide a site-by-site map of your internet browsing history and can provide that information to whomever they chose in order to exploit your data and your preferences, whether you know it or not.
Fortunately, there is a relatively simple solution to this problem, and it comes in free and paid versions. Keep in mind that quality matters and you get what you pay for. We’re talking about VPNs (Virtual Private Network) and they can be accessed online. If you want to see which VPNs are the best, take a look at PinpointVPN and the reviews. Two solid choices are ZenMate VPN and CyberGhost VPN.
Having a VPN means that the IP address of your computer will be changed by the time your ISP sees your browsing activity. Although your ISP will be able to tell that your IP utilized a VPN, the ISP is unable to track and log further detail. In addition, the websites you land on are also unable to trace your activity back to your IP address, thereby giving you anonymity.
Your Network Administrator is Watching Too
You might be accessing the internet through a computer at work or in a public location, such as a public WiFi access point or through a person-specific access system such as library computers sometimes use. In these cases, your browsing history is easily read by the network’s administrators.
To bypass the risk of IT administrators watching over your shoulder, you’ll need to use a VPN to encrypt and redirect your computer’s activity. However, this is easier said than done as network administrators can see (and block) VPN use itself.
Who Can Access Your Computer Itself?
The most likely culprit for viewing your browsing history (and we hope the most benign too) is whoever has access to your computer itself. Your browsing history is easily reviewed by anyone using your computer unless you take specific steps to eliminate these data collection points. We’ll help you understand how to take these precautionary steps.
First, let’s state the obvious. You can set your computer up with a password for access and can provide separate access (and separate data collection points) for guests or other specific users you designate with an individualized password. Hopefully, taking this practical step will eliminate a constant state of concern if you have secret (or embarrassing) search history you don’t want those in your office or house to stumble across.
Next, to protect your computer, we suggest you use a web browser that relies on HTTPS protocols, or you can download a plugin that will add HTTPS to your activity. The plugin (and the native service, if it’s built-in) will force the issue of an SSL certificate, so you have less risk regarding malicious activity that might attach itself through your browser searches without you knowing.
You can also think about using a browser that focuses on user privacy as its primary aim. DuckDuckGo is an example of this kind of browser.
However, you likely rely on Chrome and Google for a significant portion of your online searching. There are ‘clean up’ actions you can take on these platforms in order to eliminate others’ ability to see where you’ve been surfing. Here’s a summary of the areas you’ll want to focus on:
- Browser (i.e. Chrome) settings: change your settings to private browsing and your history will be deleted as you go
- Delete your history (i.e. Chrome): find the setting that allows you to clear your browsing history, any cookies and your cache
- Password saver: think carefully before using these, as they are designed to track you
- Autofill options: think about whether you need this (tracking) assistance and whether you need to clear out what has already been stored
- Google accounts: find the option for “incognito” and turn it on
Remember Websites and Cookies
Remember those cookies you deleted and how relieved you felt knowing that the websites you visited were no longer tracking you? Well, unfortunately, it’s too late. If they could read your IP address, they tracked you the instant you landed on their site.
There’s one preventative step you can take to foil future attempts by websites to access your computer, even for processes the websites defend as beneficial to your search speed and relevant content direction. You can change your DNS (Domain Name System) from the default provided by your ISP. If you change it to a public DNS server, inbound website tracking will be hampered.
Let’s circle back to Google specifically, seeing as we know that the majority of online searches are passing through this platform. Within Google, there are additional settings you can choose to maximize privacy. Look for options to delete your search history and turn off tracking activity for the web and apps.
What About Bad Actors?
The least likely (but most dangerous) concern regarding who can see your browsing history is bad actors and those with malicious intent. Attacks, data harvesting, fraud and identity theft are all possibilities as a result of surfing the web.
Using public WiFi access points or unwittingly using a fake WiFi access point that was created to lull unsuspecting victims are just two of the possible ways that your information can be gathered for untoward purposes. Malware, including keyloggers, damaging browser extensions and viruses, can cause serious damage to your computer and your data. It is important to know you have effective antivirus software in place and that you use public internet access points wisely (and sparingly). Remember that some bad actors are out hunting for banking information, login passwords, birthdates and other sensitive information.
As you can see, the strongest protection against having others see your browsing history boils down to:
- Using a VPN
- Turning on “private browsing”
- Clearing out histories, caches, cookies
- Setting Google to “incognito” and turning off tracking
- Using a public DNS
- Exercising care in using public WiFi or unknown access points
- Using good quality antivirus software
Finally, there are two additional options you can research if you’re looking to exhaust every possibility available to you for increased cyber security. If you aren’t using an effective VPN service, you can look into proxy servers that mask your location but don’t provide the same data encryption and monitoring protection. Also, utilizing Tor Browser is an advanced option that encrypts your searches and can be combined with VPN for high-quality online anonymity.