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.
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.
WHO CAN SEE YOU
WHAT THEY CAN SEE
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)
Websites you access, social media platforms you visit, videos you view, your location (when allowed)
Your online behavior (not all sites) (disabling cookies prevents them from tracking you on other sites)
Your search history and search results (Google has data from all the platforms tied to your Google account)
Your location, account info, and email address (may be different for every app based on permissions given by users, so pay attention to privacy statements)
Your browsing data (if your ISP gives permission), your online behavior to fight (cyber) crime
Possibly 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
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.
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:
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
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.
The websites you visit often collect information about you. They use your data in order to improve their services or make targeted product recommendations.
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.
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.
5. Search engines
Search engines don’t have as much information about you, but they can still see:
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.
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)
Contact list and information
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
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.
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.
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 aVPN.
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
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:
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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A proxy servermasks your IP address, so itwon’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.
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:
Disable the cookiesinstalled on your browser: The option to remove them is usually available in the Settings menu, but this depends on your browser.
Clear your browsing history: Deleting your browser history occasionally is easy and will help keep your internet activity from being used against you.
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
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:
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.
Tove has been working for VPNOverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. She has broad experience developing rigorous VPN testing procedures and protocols for our VPN review section.