Eye illustrations around desktop computer showing browsing history on the screen
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Who Can See Your Browsing History and the Websites You Visited? A Quick Overview

If you use the internet, chances are you’re being tracked. The websites you visit, governments and even search engines – they all want a piece of the data pie. King among them: internet service providers. They facilitate your access to the internet, so they can see anything you do.

Here’s a summary of what each of the above parties might know about you:

  • Internet service providers: ISPs will know which websites you visit, how long you’re on them, the content you interact with, what device you’re using, where you are, and plenty more.
  • Websites: Each website you visit will know about your activity on their site, and potentially what you do on other sites, if you have enabled cookies.
  • Search engines: Firefox and similar search engines will know your search history and results, including what you clicked on. In the case of Google, it can also see much more through its other apps.
  • Governments: Anything your ISP knows governments can know, too. They just need a subpoena to access the information they require.
  • Your employer/school: If they’re your network administrator, they can see everything you do online, much like an ISP would.

There’s no surefire way to stop all of them from mining your personal information. But a VPN can hide most of what you do from your ISP, which is a crucial first step in keeping your browsing and search history to yourself. If you’re not sure which VPN to choose, we highly recommend NordVPN.

But a VPN is not enough to safeguard your privacy. In this article, we will take a deep dive into who can see your browsing history, and how to protect your personal information.

Icon showing surveillance camera with red alert triangle

We use the internet for online banking, to keep an eye on our health, and to stay in touch with friends. But everything we do online leaves breadcrumbs like our browsing history, search history, and more.

So who has access to these breadcrumbs we leave behind? Who can see your browsing history? And how can you protect yourself?

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at who can see what you do online. From your internet service provider (ISP) to your apps and even your employer, we’ll show you what everyone can see. We’ll also provide you with actionable steps to reclaim your anonymity and browse the web privately.

Who Can See What I’m Doing Online?

There are quite a few eyes on your browsing activity. In the table below, we’ve listed eight parties that see what you do online.

Internet service providers (ISP)Websites you visit, your social media, who you email, health and finance information (ISPs save your data for a period of time, depending on local legislation)
Your Wi-Fi network’s administrator (usually your employer/school)Websites you view, social media you use, videos you watch
(they can’t see the info you input in secured forms on HTTPS sites)
Operating systemsWebsites you access, social media platforms you visit, videos you view, your location (when allowed)
WebsitesYour online behavior (not all sites)
(disabling cookies prevents them from tracking you on other sites)
Search enginesYour search history and search results (Google has data from all the platforms tied to your Google account)
AppsYour location, account info, and email address (may be different for every app based on permissions given by users, so pay attention to privacy statements)
GovernmentsYour browsing data (if your ISP gives permission), your online behavior to fight (cyber) crime
HackersPossibly your browser history, login data, financial details, etc. (depends on the kind of attack)

We’ll go through what each of these parties knows about you in more detail below, along with the rationale behind why they collect this data.

1. Internet service providers

ISP server with router icon

Your internet service provider (ISP) is your gateway to the internet. It automatically receives a lot of information about you and your online life. As long as your online activity isn’t encrypted, your ISP will see it all. This includes:

  • Sites you visit
  • How long you’re on a particular website or app
  • Content you watch
  • Files you download
  • Devices you’re using
  • Your geographic location

Even incognito mode doesn’t keep you safe. It just hides (some of) your browser’s identity from the websites you visit. But an ISP can see through it.

ISPs can know more than you might want about private matters like your personal health or your finances. Using all of this data, they could create an accurate profile on you and tie it to your IP address. Depending on your country’s laws, ISPs might hold onto this data for months or even years. This data can be used for surveillance, policing, and occasionally advertising purposes.

This is one of the reasons why it might be good to hide your IP address. And the best way to do that is by picking a trustworthy and effective VPN, like NordVPN.

2.Wi-Fi network administrators

Other parties watching your online activity icon

The data you send through an open Wi-Fi network isn’t well-protected. This is why you shouldn’t check your finances or pay any bills while using public Wi-Fi, as it is not secure.

Bar from any hack, which is always a risk on public Wi-Fi, you may be wondering who else can see what you’re doing. The administrator of your network will be able to see the following:

  • Your browsing history
  • Files you access
  • The time you spend on each website
  • Who you talk to online

Part of your internet history is safe: HTTPS provides you with a tiny bit of extra security. Network administrators can’t see what you fill into the private fields of sites with HTTPS enabled. They’re the websites with a padlock next to the URL:

Screenshot of browser, close up address bar with HTTPS padlock highlighted

Besides public Wi-Fi admins, your boss or school might be able to see what you’re doing online.

What does my boss see?

A frequently asked question about browsing history is: Can my boss see what I do online? The answer is yes. As long as you’re connected to a network that’s under your boss’s control, they can see nearly everything you do. The same thing applies to your school.

Aside from that, don’t forget that your employer — or anyone with access to your (work) computer and account — could easily open your browser and see your browsing history. So scrolling through Reddit might not be the smartest idea during work hours.

3. Operating system

Windows operating system privacy

Your device’s operating system (Windows, iOS, Linux) also knows a thing or two about you. It stores data on your computer to make it easier for you to back up and recover necessary files.

For a quick overview of what data it might have, check your system’s parental controls, which you would usually use to keep your children safe online. Whatever you can see about your kid’s account there, Microsoft or Apple can see about you. They can track:

  • Websites you visit
  • Videos you view
  • Social media platforms and apps you use
  • Your physical location

But it’s easy to stay on top of operating systems mining your browsing history. Every OS is required (by EU law) to give you a full report on any data they have collected about you. So you can always know what they have on you. You can also adjust the privacy settings of Windows 10 and MacOS in order to keep your data private.

Just remember: if you use an OS’ proprietary software, such as Edge for Windows or Safari for MacOS, Microsoft and Apple can still know what you’ve been up to.

4. Websites

Hacker coming out of the webcam

The websites you visit often collect information about you. They use your data in order to improve their services or make targeted product recommendations.

Websites use cookies to collect information. A cookie could, for example, remember which pages of an online store you’ve visited. Here’s an overview of what websites might know about you:

  • Pages you visited
  • Content you interacted with
  • Products from their site that caught your eye
  • Your location, device, and browser
  • How you interact with other websites (but only while they use platforms like Google Ads to target you with advertisements)

This way, a website can know what product of theirs you seem to like. For example, let’s say you visited an online fashion store and browsed for a pair of sturdy winter boots. If you don’t buy the boots, the cookies saved by that fashion store can help them retarget you.

The next time you visit Facebook, or Instagram, you might see ads for similar pairs of boots and even discount codes for the products you viewed. Other sites might use this information to recommend related products like skis, snowboards, or a ticket to the Swiss Alps.

Cookies: Good or bad?

You’ve probably heard of cookies. And you’re probably tired of the annoying pop-ups that ask you to accept some cookies. But what are cookies? They’re pieces of text that save information about the websites you’ve visited on your browser.

Infographic showing what do cookies do

Cookies can be really useful. They save parts of the websites you visit on your browser, which gives you faster loading times whenever you visit a site you like. They also remember your login details and help deliver relevant ads. In general, they enhance your web browsing experience. But some of the information cookies collect is also sent to the websites themselves.

Due to General Data Protection Requirements (GDPR) in Europe, most websites will tell you if and when they collect cookies. They even have to explicitly ask their EU visitors for permission. So you can get around the breach of privacy. The only issue is that a lot of sites won’t work half as well if you don’t give them permission to use cookies.

5. Search engines

Google G Logo

Search engines don’t have as much information about you, but they can still see:

  • Everything you search for
  • Links you click on
  • Search history going back months or even years
  • Location, browser, device, and IP address

According to Statista, Google takes care of over 84% of the globe’s online searches, so we’ll focus more on what it can track.

The search engine giant has a unique position when it comes to data collection. They gather tons of information from what you search, but they can also track you through their other apps. Google.com, Chrome, Gmail, Maps, Hangout, and YouTube are all tied to your Google account.

With all the data flowing from these platforms, Google can learn many things about you and form a scarily accurate profile of you. Search engines will collect data to make your experience more unique by presenting you with results that are more relevant to you.

But privacy violations aren’t part of the course in all search engines. DuckDuckGo goes against the grain and doesn’t collect any data about its users. Anonymous searching is their main focus. Your searches will never be saved, so the results won’t be tailored to your behavior. But you get your privacy in return. DuckDuckGo uses the Tor network, which allows for strong levels of encryption and ensures anonymity.

6. Apps

Apps on your computer, laptop, tablet, and smartphone collect your online data to some extent. The type and amount of information collected differ from app to app. For example, GPS apps and most dating apps need to track your location to function properly, while other apps only need an email address to allow you to create an account. Here’s a roundup of the most common data collected by apps:

  • Information you send and receive within that app
  • Browsing history, if you use the app to surf the web (i.e., Google Search or a browser app)
  • Your location
  • Contact list and information
Location pin hidden behind IP address panel with change/restart icon

Usually, each app has its own privacy agreement, which explains what data they collect and why. Here, iOS devices have a leg up on their Android counterparts. Apple requires every published app on its store to have a discrete privacy policy. It’s often quite useful to read these statements to become more aware of what kind of data companies collect.

7. Governments

Most governments don’t actively track or store your browsing information. They just ask your ISP for it in case they need the data as part of an investigation. Besides, they can always subpoena other companies that might have encrypted data, like a messaging app developer or a secure mailing service. So even if governments don’t (officially) collect too much data, they can get access to pretty much anything, including:

  • Websites you view
  • The time spent on those websites
  • Videos you click on and watch
  • Files you download
  • Your device and browser information
  • Where you are located
  • Incoming and outgoing messages
Eye on Laptop

This information can be used to fight (cyber)crime. But its collection sets some people on edge. It might be uncomfortable to know the government (and not just your country’s government) could be looking over your shoulder.

Your data can be saved by official authorities for years, and not just when you’re acting suspiciously. Through laws on data retention and international agreements to share information, many governments violate their civilians’ privacy.

This is taken to the extreme by repressive governments. Egypt, China, and Belarus are just a few examples of countries that use the internet to encroach on their citizens’ freedom. Luckily, there are ways to bypass online censorship, by using a VPN, for example.

8. Hackers

Hacking and malware icon

Hackers might try to uncover your browsing history in illegal ways. Hackers and cybercriminals can collect data about you by breaking into your computer, network, or any online account. In theory, they can gain access to all of your data. But most commonly, hackers get their hands on:

  • Login credentials to different websites
  • Browsing and search history
  • Emails and messages exchanged in multiple apps
  • Files you download or store on devices
  • Location, home address, and in rare cases, even crucial data like your SSN

There are countless tricks that hackers employ to make you vulnerable. If you’re dealing with a black hat hacker or a real cybercriminal, this data could then easily be used against you. In the most serious cases, this can lead to identity theft, doxing, swatting, sextortion, and all types of fraud.

This is why you must protect yourself against such attacks. You can do this by keeping up to date with phishing scam information, only adding your data on trusted sites, and generally browsing the internet by following safe practices. Not sure what that entails? Let’s get into the tips and tricks to keep your browsing information safe.

How Do I Keep Others From Seeing What I Do Online?

Just like us, you probably hate the idea of your data being exposed to so many different parties. Luckily, there are several ways to remain anonymous online. But opening incognito mode in Google Chrome is not enough to guarantee anonymous browsing. You need to do a bit more work than that.

Data breaches icon

The main trick is to hide your IP address. If your IP is hidden, it becomes much harder to see your browsing history. There are still a few other ways that people can use to trace you. But these methods, like browser fingerprinting, are more complex and hard to pull off.

There are a lot of ways to cloak your IP. You could use a proxy, download the Tor browser, or the easiest and safest option: install a VPN.

VPN connection

VPN connection Internet

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) changes your IP address, so you can’t be tracked online. A good VPN also encrypts your data, so others won’t be able to steal or read it.

A VPN is, in its most basic sense, a proxy connection with additional strong encryption. A safer and more anonymous alternative to other services that cloak your IP address. VPNs route your internet traffic through a VPN server which protects your data from the most curious eyes.

There are several top VPN providers out there, so search for a service that fits your needs. If you’re not sure what to pick, NordVPN is always a safe bet.

NordVPN: The best VPN to hide your browsing and search history

Screenshot of NordVPN website homepage with added logo in the corner

Our NordVPN reviews show it is an excellent VPN for internet users who take their privacy seriously. This service offers its users three things that will greatly improve their privacy:

  • First-class encryption protocols
  • A strict no-logging policy
  • Advanced security features like obfuscated servers and Onion Over VPN

NordVPN has a strict no-logging policy, which means they do not store any of your data. So even if NordVPN is breached, your privacy is still protected. They also have thousands of servers around the globe, so you can browse without lag, no matter where you live.

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Proxy server

Proxy server icon

A proxy server masks your IP address, so it won’t be revealed to the websites you visit. But unlike a VPN, a proxy won’t encrypt your data. Therefore, it can still be read by external parties.

This is why a proxy is very useful for circumventing geographic online barriers and blocks but not for exchanging sensitive information. In general, the anonymity and protection a proxy offers are minimal. You’re always safer with a VPN server.

Tor browser

Tor Logo

The Tor browser allows you to send all your online traffic via a worldwide network of servers. The Tor network adds multiple layers of encryption to your data. Moreover, Tor lets you access the dark web.

Tor is meant to provide its users with a safe and anonymous internet experience. Sadly, the strong encryption Tor uses makes for a significantly slower connection. Moreover, a wrong setting in the browser could already mean you’re not as safe as you could be.

Keep In Mind

Many of Tor’s “exit nodes” (the last server your traffic passes through before moving on to its destination) are publicly listed online. Some hackers try to get a hold of these servers to steal your data. So for maximum privacy, always connect to a VPN before using Tor.

Other Means of Online Protection

If you want to keep your online activity private, getting a VPN isn’t the only thing you should do. Here are a number of other online best practices you can employ to limit your information footprint:

Infographic showing some of the best practices for online protection
  1. Use a privacy-focused browser: If Tor doesn’t sound great, Brave or Firefox are great alternatives.
  2. Tweak your browser’s privacy settings: These are usually available in Settings > Privacy. Google’s default privacy settings, for example, aren’t ideal.
  3. Disable the cookies installed on your browser: The option to remove them is usually available in the Settings menu, but this depends on your browser.
  4. Clear your browsing history: Deleting your browser history occasionally is easy and will help keep your internet activity from being used against you.

    Screenshot of Google Cookie settings
  5. Use a pseudonym when signing up for online services. Your email address usually contains a lot of personal information. If you register it under a pseudonym, you’re already protecting your privacy. Extra points if you use an anonymous email service like ProtonMail.

Protect Your Browsing History and Online Privacy

Security and privacy icon

A lot of people are eager to get their hands on your personal information. This data can be used to personalize ads or improve services, but also to keep a close eye on you or steal from you.

So it’s important to guard your browsing history and your privacy. You can do this by using a proxy, the Tor browser, or a VPN. Although a proxy won’t actually encrypt your online activities, Tor and a VPN give decent protection.

Using both will safeguard your data even more: you can easily connect to a VPN and use the Tor browser at the same time. Your data may not be 100% safe, but fewer people will want to go through the trouble of stealing your personal information.

If you want to check out more articles regarding your online privacy, have a look at the ones below:

  1. How Does Your Browser Know Your Location and How to Hide it
  2. What Does Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) Know About You?
  3. 5 Eyes, 9 Eyes, 14 Eyes: Protect Yourself From Global Surveillance
Who Can See Your Browsing History: Frequently Asked Questions

Have you got a question about your browsing privacy or the measures you can take to improve it? In that case, have a look at our FAQ down below.

Who can see what I do online?

There are tons of different parties who can spy on you online and see your browsing history, such as the websites you visit, governments, hackers, search engines, internet service providers and many more.

What information can people who track you online see?

People who track you online can see a lot, depending on who’s the party tracking you, and what safety measures you take. For instance, if you use a public Wi-Fi hot spot for online banking without taking any safety measures, your financial details might end up in the hands of a hacker.

Even though different parties can see and track a lot of what you do online, you can take steps to improve your privacy and surf the web anonymously.

How can I browse the web privately?

There are several ways to browse the web privately. You can use privacy-minded search engines like DuckDuckGo and the Tor browser, install ad blockers and extensions that remove cookies, and plenty more.

But the single most important thing you can do is use a VPN. A VPN hides your IP address and also encrypts your internet traffic, improving your online privacy by a lot.

What can parties do with my data?

This depends on what parties are involved and what data they obtained. Companies such as Google and Facebook, for instance, use information related to your preferences and search queries to show you advertisements they think you’ll be interested in.

On the other hand, cybercriminals can obtain your bank details to enrich themselves, if you fill out your login info on an unsafe public WiFi network. These are just a few of the reasons why we always recommend taking several precautions online, such as using a VPN.

Can network administrators see incognito browsing?

Yes, network administrators like your school or employer can see your incognito browsing. Incognito mode only hides some information from the websites you visit, but not from your ISP, network administrator, or government.

But there are ways to find out about who can see your browsing history and stop these third parties from accessing your data.

Leave a comment

  1. Gwen

    Ok, I love this info!!!!
    But all I want to know is
    Can the other 2 people in this house
    See what site I’m on on my own tablet?

    • Priscilla Sherman VPNOverview.com

      They might! If one of those two people is the administrator of your Wi-Fi network (the person that pays the internet bill, usually), they can see what you do online — unless you use a VPN. Additionally, people can also see what sites you visit if they have (physical) access to your tablet. In that case, they can simply look at your browser history.

  2. jimmy

    If WIN 10 privacy settings are enabled to collect data then can private browsing mode and a VPN prevent it?

    • David Janssen VPNOverview.com

      If you opt-in to Windows’ own setting to allow the collection of certain data, they can probably collect that data, even if you use private browsing more or a VPN. I don’t know what kind of data Windows tracks exactly, but if you want to make sure they can’t track anything, you sould opt-out of that specific Windows option.

  3. Mike

    If you are not the admin of Windows 10 and they control the browser(s) is it possible to hide browsing history on Firefox by using an add-on VPN along with checking “never remember history”?

    • David Janssen VPNOverview.com

      This will keep your browsing history from being recorded in your browser and by other parties. However, if you want to make sure Windows 10 is as private as it can be, we’d advise you to take on some of the privacy tips mentioned in this article on Windows 10.

  4. Alessio

    But can parents see if I have surfed in incognito mode on Google?

    • David Janssen VPNOverview.com

      It’s very likely that they can! If they own the network you’re using, they can see your browsing history. However, if you use a VPN, this information will no longer be visible for them.

  5. peter

    Can Windows 10 see your browsing history if you use a VPN in Firefox WITHOUT incognito mode?

    • David Janssen VPNOverview.com

      This partly depends on your Windows settings. There are options that allow Windows to store your activity history on your device, and even to send it to Microsoft. If you make sure these options are turned off, however, as well as using a VPN, you should be fine. More about how to increase your privacy on Windows 10 can be read in this article.

  6. Lamzalo

    Safari remembers the webpages you’ve visited for as long as a year, so you can easily return to them.

    • David Janssen VPNOverview.com

      That’s true. With Safari, you can choose yourself for how long you wish the browser to remember your history, up to one year. This could mean that others see all of this as well. By using a VPN and the incognito mode, you can keep others, such as your roommates, but also your ISP, from seeing which web pages you visit. The useful thing about a VPN is that you’ll still be able to return to web pages you’ve visited in the past, while also being protected online.

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