Internet service providers (ISPs) can see more of what you do online than almost anyone. They can track your browsing history easily, and, in some cases, they can share that data with third parties.
Your data has become incredibly precious, surpassing even the value of oil. That’s why it is essential to review browsing habits – especially since more than just ISPs are going after your data. With that in mind, let’s find out how to keep your online privacy.
Table of contents
Who can see your browsing history, and how much?
Many would love to get their hands on your data. Here are a few that you should keep in mind:
Internet service providers
ISPs can see your whole internet activity as your devices send DNS (Domain Name System) requests to their servers. Simply said, these requests are like the phonebook of the internet, using URLs (links) instead of numbers.
Here is some information your provider can see:
- Your current location;
- The devices you use;
- The content you watch;
- Websites you visit and how long you stay there;
- What you download;
- What exactly you do on sites that use the outdated HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) is much more reliable.
ISPs collect information about you for a variety of reasons like:
- Complying with data retention laws – They track and provide data to the government for investigations, most often copyright violations.
- Imposing censorship – In restrictive countries like China, governments require ISPs to block access to sites that criticize the regime or go against state religion.
- Bandwidth throttling – It means decreasing the connection speed when accessing specific web pages or services.
- Selling data to marketing companies – Your web activity can be used to predict your online behavior and to personalize ads.
Can you request ISPs to provide the data collected from you?
Yes, but that would fail. ISPs deny customer data requests to retrieve their internet history as their number would be astronomical. That means increased costs and labor shortage for these providers.
So, it’s easier to refuse, and they don’t want to share the details in the first place as the content might be shocking.
Also, ISP tracking varies by provider and data retention laws. Some countries require providers to keep logs for 6 months, others up to a year.
However, note that selling data to third parties is illegal (with exceptions like the US).
Lately, distrust in governments has risen sky-high, and not without reason. They might have more data about you than you think.
So, here’s some of the information relevant to the government:
- Places you visit often – Your workplace, home address, etc. are used to find any changes in your schedule if you are suspected of illegal activity.
- Your lifestyle – Hobbies like cycling and jogging are just peachy but interest in subjects like chemistry can be viewed as ‘terroristic’ tendencies.
- People close to you – Friends and family can be checked for criminal records and how they could influence your behavior.
- Your communication tools and online calls – Whatsapp, Messenger, you name it. The content you send, and differences from the usual can be used against you.
- Your search queries – Searching specific topics (How to make a bomb? How to make a nuclear missile?) can make you a suspect. Yes, even if searched as a joke as people do that for fun or clout.
How is your information used by the government?
Here are a few ways authorities use your data:
- Fighting crime – Governments use the data to track the movements, online banking, and build suspected criminals’ profiles.
- Repressing and influencing opinions – Dissidents can be persecuted or even imprisoned for speaking out against the authorities in more extreme cases.
- Blocking specific pages – Any sites that go against ideas of the authorities or public opinion or state religion. Porn, gambling, and social media sites are the most common examples.
Even though most governments claim their monitoring is for just causes, we have barely scratched the surface. We will never really know the true extent of their tracking.
That’s why it’s essential to remain vigilant of what you do online and protect yourself.
The word ‘hacker’ frightens many like a boogeyman under the bed. But are hackers as dangerous as people think?
Well, the short answer is yes. Hackers can gain access to your browser history in various ways:
- Hacking into company databases – They can get login details into your accounts like Google, which stores your Google Chrome browsing history.
- Installing malware – Malicious files created by cybercriminals float around the internet, and if they find their way into your devices, there is plenty of data for the taking.
- Breaking into your network – Hackers can easily access your devices when connected to the same network. This especially applies to public Wi-Fi.
- Exploiting security loopholes – Outdated operating systems, weak passwords, and unencrypted devices are easy to crack with the right software.
Here are a few examples of how hackers can exploit your data:
- Blackmail – Demanding money for not exposing controversial details.
- Payment card fraud – Using your cards or opening new ones under your name to spend your funds.
- Impersonation – Creating a personality profile for scamming people close to you via phishing or in other ways after analyzing your browsing history.
- Black market sales – Selling your data to the highest bidder on the dark web.
The critical thing to remember is that hackers are not boogeymen but a real threat.
A search engine is a place where everyone’s online journey begins, and it’s no wonder that collecting data about you is easy for it. The search terms you enter, and every link you click connects you to something.
For example, Google is a tech giant that owns databases just as huge. All Google services are tied to your Google account and are paid for with money from targeted advertising. That means Google is what it is today because it shares your data with advertisers.
This leads us to a creepy yet logical conclusion: nobody knows you better than Google, not even your mom.
Websites and apps
Have you ever seen a pop-up asking to allow cookies? Probably more than once or twice.
They are helpful, sure. The same site loads faster next time you come by. But this is also the main way websites track you. They can see which specific store pages you visited to show targeted ads just for you.
Apps, on the other hand, ask for permissions on first bootup or when using certain features. For example, dating apps and Google Maps require GPS. Almost all apps require storage permissions.
Some apps even ask you for bizarre permissions that are irrelevant for use. Like an e-book app asking for camera or phonebook permissions. Beware of such apps as they are intended to scam you and don’t deliver on their promises.
Can people see what was searched on their Wi-Fi network?
Yes, they can. Public Wi-Fi is especially dangerous because it is an open network. Anyone can connect to it and exploit it.
But don’t be deceived. Network administrators can use private networks for monitoring your browsing activity too.
Be it your landlord, boss, or family member, if you can’t delete your Wi-Fi history, they can see everything.
Wired connections (via Ethernet cable), on the other hand, are a little safer than Wi-Fi, so grab a cable instead when possible.
Can someone see my search history on Incognito?
But it is far from anonymous browsing as you can see from the picture above. Google states that your private data is still visible to websites, network administrators (school or employer), and ISPs.
That is because your online traffic is unencrypted, and your actual IP address and geolocation are exposed.
Want to hear more? Check our video about Incognito mode and how private it really is.
What can you do to hide your online activity?
There are multiple ways to secure your online activity. Here’s what you should do:
Use Tor browser
Tor browser provides its users with the Tor network, which protects your internet traffic by adding layers of data encryption (imagine an onion).
Also, people often use it to access the hazardous dark web securely. Not that you should do that, though.
However, fiddling with browser settings too much could leave you vulnerable, and Tor tends to significantly slow down the connection speed.
There are other drawbacks to consider, too. Some sites block Tor connections, and using Tor can be seen as a red flag by your ISP and government. If you have to, it’s best to use Tor over a VPN.
Use an HTTPS proxy
HTTPS proxies encrypt your browser traffic and route that traffic through a proxy server. But they have a considerable downside – other traffic that your device receives and sends is left out. This loophole means that apps that require internet access are not protected.
It is also important to highlight that DNS and SOCKS proxies don’t encrypt traffic. They only help with geoblocking, so don’t consider them as a solution.
Use a VPN
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a better alternative to proxies and Tor. All because it doesn’t share their biggest drawbacks. A VPN encrypts both the data of your web browsers and applications, and routes it through a VPN server.
It is a secure tunnel to the internet that replaces your IP address with the VPN server’s, effectively masking your location and safeguarding your online activities from potential risks associated with what can be done with your IP address. The encrypted connection helps hide your browsing history from anyone interested in your data. For a slight decrease in speed compared to Tor, that is.
Last but not least, a VPN connection can offer more benefits: it helps to block ads and provides a Kill Switch that disables your internet connection if your VPN disconnects. It also bypasses geo-restrictions which can be helpful abroad on a holiday or a work trip.
Use Surfshark Search
Surfshark Search is a private search tool designed to show only organic search free from the interference of your previous browsing history.
You can also view search results by country. It is ad-free, and a no-logs policy applies – a great way to combat search engine monitoring (Google, I’m looking at you).
All things considered, should you be concerned about your browser history?
The short answer is: yes. Regular internet users won’t see your internet history, but several other parties can, and you shouldn’t take your online privacy lightly.
So, why not keep your internet history private and give Surfshark a shot?
Can anyone see what I’m looking at on the internet?
Not anyone but internet service providers, hackers, the government, search engines, and others can collect your data for malicious purposes. For example: monitoring, censorship, targeted advertising, and many more.
Can people see what you have searched on their Wi-Fi?
Yes, they can. The people who can access this information could be your boss or family member if they control the network. It is best to use security tools: VPNs, HTTPS proxies, and the Tor browser to keep your searches private from them.
Can my internet provider see my history?
Yes. Internet providers can see everything you do on the internet. The only way to defend against this is by encrypting your data. Solutions like VPNs, HTTPS proxies, and the Tor browser can help you protect your data.
Does deleting history really delete it?
No, only on the surface. Your internet provider collects and stores this information for a period that depends on data retention laws (often 6 months/1 year). The best way to protect your data is to prevent them from seeing your search history at all. Use data encryption tools like Tor, VPN, or an HTTPS proxy.
Can police recover deleted internet history?
Yes, simply by contacting your internet service provider. They are obligated by law to store records of your online activity. The only exception is that your provider could have already deleted the data if the history is older than the data retention period.