Who can see your browsing history and the websites you’ve visited?

Browsing History Privacy

When you are online, there are various people and organizations that try to spy on you, from websites you visit to government agencies and search engines such as Google. ISPs can also see a lot of what you do online. 

It is increasingly important to maintain your privacy and protect yourself against this type of action. A great way to protect yourself is to use a VPN. It hides your IP address and encrypts your data traffic so that no one can track your steps online.

A great VPN for anyone who values ​​their online privacy is Surfshark. This provider offers excellent encryption protocols, several unique security tools, as well as its strict anti-logging policy, which help to ensure your online privacy.

Our online lives are getting longer every day. We use the internet to manage our finances, to take care of our health and to keep in touch with our friends, family and colleagues. Without realizing it, we are all sending a lot of information into the void.

Since projects like Wikileaks and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden have brought up the fact that many official institutions are constantly monitoring people, our privacy has become a hotly debated topic. Who’s listening? 

Had your personal information shared by someone? Which companies can track you online, and what exactly do they see? These are some questions that we will answer for you.

VPNs hide your browsing data from snoopers

Before we talk about the various people and entities that can track you online, we want to give you a simple tip to protect your privacy: use a VPN when browsing the web. VPNs make your internet activities much more anonymous by routing your data traffic through an external VPN server with a different IP address than yours. 

People on the internet will not see your real IP address, only that of the VPN server. So, all your searches and visited websites cannot be traced back to you. In addition, VPNs protect your data traffic with strong encryption, making your data more difficult to intercept and significantly increasing your online security.

Surfshark: A Secure and Cheap VPN Provider

For those who value their privacy, Surfshark is an excellent option. You just need to download a simple app on your phone, tablet or computer. Just push a button and your privacy is protected and all your internet traffic is safe. Surfshark offers the extremely secure OpenVPN encryption protocol, as well as an anti-log policy. 

In addition, Surfshark offers some extra security options like kill switch and double VPN connection, providing more security and privacy. And all this for a super affordable price, with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Who can see what I’m doing online?

There are several groups that can track us online. In the table below, we have listed some that may interest you. The second column gives more information about what each group might have about you and what they could do with that information.

Internet Service Providers (ISP)CAN see the websites and social media you visit, who you emailCAN see likely details about your health and financesThey can save your data from six months to a year (even longer), depending on local legislationMaybe request a data report for them (if European citizen)
Administrator of your network (Wi-Fi)CAN see the websites and social media you visit, videos you watchCANNOT see exactly what you fill in secure forms on HTTPS sitesYour employer/boss is usually in this category
Operational systemsCAN see the websites and social media you visit, videos you watchCAN see your location (when enabled)Maybe request a data report for them (if European citizen)
WebsitesMAY see your online behavior on some websitesThey usually work with cookiesCan customize ads and adjust them to suit your online behavior
Search toolsCAN see your search historyCAN see your search resultsGoogle: has data from all the platforms on which you use your Google account
AppsCAN see your location, account information, email addressDifferent for each appTip: Pay close attention to each app’s privacy statement
AuthoritiesMay request your browsing data from your internet providerTrack online behavior to fight (cyber)crimesTend to limit online freedom and privacy in some cases
HackersMAY possibly see your browsing history, login data, financial details, etc.Depends on the type of attack

What can my ISP see?

Incognito Mode Icon

Your ISP, or ISP, is your gateway to the internet. Everything you do online goes through your ISP. That means they get a lot of information about you and your online life automatically. If your online data isn’t encrypted enough, your ISP will have access to everything. Even incognito mode doesn’t keep you safe. 

Your ISP knows what websites you visit, what you do on your social media, and who you email. Sometimes they even know more than you would like about personal matters, like your personal health or finances. Using all this data, your ISP could create an accurate profile about you and link to your IP address. This is one of the reasons why it would be good to hide your IP address.

Most countries have laws on data collection. These laws define how long ISPs can, at a minimum, save any data collected. However, this legislation varies from country to country: in some places, this period is six months. In others, at least a year. During this period, authorities can ask ISPs to share the data. What happens to your data after that is uncertain. This likely varies by provider and again by country. However, ISPs are generally prohibited from selling your data to third parties.

It might be interesting to know that encrypted data, such as WhatsApp messages that use end-to-end encryption, cannot be seen by your ISP. If you live in Europe and want to know what data your ISP has collected from you, GDPR gives you the right to request a full report.

What can my network (Wi-Fi) administrator see?

Many know that data sent over an open Wi-Fi network is not well protected. For this reason, you should not view your finances or make payments while using Burger King’s free Wi-Fi, for example. Once you are aware of this, any internet connection that is not an openly available Wi-Fi network can sound extremely secure and reliable. That’s only part of the situation: unlike Wi-Fi, cable connection doesn’t allow everyone to spy on your online activities.

But there is still someone who can: your network administrator will be able to see your entire browsing history. This means that it can store and view almost every page you have visited. Part of your browsing history is safe: HTTPS gives you a little extra security. Have you visited sites that use this protocol? In this case, the administrator will not be able to see exactly what you have done on this site.

What can my boss see?

A frequently asked question: Can my boss see what I do online? And the answer is yes. If you are using a network that is under your boss’s control, he or she can see almost everything you do, just as any other network administrator could. Also, don’t forget that your employer – or anyone else with access to your (work) computer and account – could easily see your browsing history. So it’s best not to play your Facebook games during your working hours.

What can your operating system see?

Windows operating system privacy

Your device’s operating system (Windows, iOS, etc.) also knows a few things about you. You can adjust Windows 10 and iOS privacy settings to keep yourself as safe as possible when using these systems. Even so, they will still have access to much of your data.

To get an idea of ​​the data your operating system saves, take a look at the parental control programs that come built-in to the system. With parental control, you can keep an eye on your kids’ online activities. You can see what websites they’ve visited, what videos they watch on YouTube, and what social media they use. This information is sent to you by your operating system, which means that the system itself has access to all this data.

Like your ISP, your operating system is also required (by European law) to provide a full report on any data collected. Windows also offers this possibility. If you use Windows, you’ll find that Microsoft knows what apps you’ve opened, what terms you’ve used in your searches, what movies you’ve watched, and sometimes even your location. If you use proprietary Windows programs and apps like the Edge browser and Windows Movie Maker, Microsoft will know exactly what you’ve been up to.

What can websites see?

Generally, the websites you visit collect information about you. They use your data to optimize their services and make specific functions available to you. For this reason, you are asked to enter your username and password on various social media sites. By collecting data and inserting cookies, websites can easily track your online behaviour.

You’ve probably heard about cookies. Most people cannot avoid those dialogue boxes on websites asking for permission to enable cookies. In fact, cookies are often very useful: they ensure that you have a fast and easy connection to the internet. Cookies save information about the websites you have visited using your browser, so that your browsing on these websites is faster and smoother the next time you visit them. They save your login and allow websites to adjust their ads to suit you.

The information collected by cookies is also sent to the websites themselves. Due to GDPR in Europe, most websites when and if are collecting cookies. They even need to clearly ask European citizens for permission. The only problem is that many browsing on these sites will be affected if you do not allow cookies.

Websites use cookies to collect information. A cookie can, for example, remember which page you visited in an online store. This way, websites know what products you’re looking for and can adjust their ads accordingly. This increases the chances that you will click on the ads as it is something you really want to buy. On the other hand, it is a tremendous invasion of privacy.

What can search engines see?

Like websites, search engines also collect a lot of information about users. Every search you do, every link you click says something about who you are. Usually, this data is collected and saved. The most famous search engine in the world, good old Google, has a unique position regarding data collection. The company that started “only” as a search tool, today has numerous services paid with advertising money. Many of these ads are personalized using data collected by Google. So, in short, Google makes a profit by selling its users’ data to third parties.

Due to the services that Google has, the company has huge databases, full of information about its users. Google.com, Chrome, Gmail, Maps, Hangout and YouTube are all linked to your Google account. With all the data flowing from these platforms, Google can put together a frighteningly accurate profile of you. Whether it’s information about your prospects or how you dress, Google knows.

A search tool that goes completely against Google and doesn’t collect any kind of data is DuckDuckGo. The main focus of the service is precisely the anonymous search: your searches will never be saved and, consequently, the results will be optimized based on your behaviour. DuckDuckGo uses the Tor network, which allows for high levels of encryption to ensure anonymity. We’ll talk more about Tor later.

What can apps see?

Applications on your computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone also receive some of your online data. Every app has access to the information you send and receive within the app. The type and amount of information collected varies from application to application. For example, GPS apps and most dating apps need your location to work perfectly, while other apps need your email address to allow you to create an account. 

Generally, each app has its own privacy agreement, which describes the type of data from you that they will use. This is the case with the Apple Store, which has made the privacy agreement mandatory for all apps that want to be included in the store. It is very helpful to read these agreements,

What can authorities see?

Eye on Laptop

As mentioned earlier, ISPs are required by law to save your data for a certain period of time. Local authorities and/or the police may request data relevant to an investigation from your ISP. This is one of the ways authorities can gain access to your data online. This information can be used to fight internet crimes (cybercrimes). In some countries, individuals who upload illegally are identified in this way.

There’s no reason to fear government authorities as long as you don’t break the law – but even then, it can be a little uncomfortable knowing that authorities (and not just local authorities) may have access to your data. Authorities can save your data for years, regardless of whether you have been acting suspiciously or not. Through data collection laws and international information sharing agreements, many authorities restrict the privacy of their citizens.

The situation is even more critical in some countries. There are countries where authorities use information obtained online about citizens to restrict their freedom. In Egypt, for example, several bloggers were arrested for criticizing government leaders online.

What can hackers see?

Of course, people can also try to find out about your online activities in illegal ways. Hackers and cybercriminals can collect data about you by breaking into your computer and/or network. There are numerous pitfalls that make your information more vulnerable. If you are dealing with an experienced hacker or a real cybercriminal, this data could easily be used against you. 

Think about real crimes like identity theft. It is important to protect yourself from these attacks. That’s why we’ve put together some ways you can protect your data online and control your privacy.

How do I prevent other people from seeing what I do online?

Like us, surely the last thing you want is people snooping around your life. Fortunately, there are several ways to ensure your anonymity online. The main tip is to hide your IP address. If your IP address is hidden, no one will be able to track what you do online. There are various ways to suppress your IP: you can use a proxy, download the Tor browser or install a VPN. Below, you will find a brief summary of each of these options.

proxy server

When using a proxy server your IP address will not be revealed to the websites you visit. The downside of proxy servers is that your data will not be encrypted, so it can still be read by third parties. For this reason, the proxy is very useful for bypassing blocks and geographic barriers, but not for exchanging confidential information. Overall, the anonymity and protection offered by the proxy is limited.

Tor The Onion Router Logo

The Tor browser allows you to send all your online traffic through a worldwide network of servers. At each step, the Tor network adds a few layers of encryption to your data. In addition, the Tor browser provides access to the dark web. Tor is designed to provide an anonymous and secure experience for its users. Unfortunately, the high level of encryption offered by Tor significantly slows down your internet. Also, an incorrect browser configuration can put your security at risk.

VPN connection

VPN connection Internet

A VPN connection is the most advanced option when it comes to online security and privacy. The VPN gives you a new IP address that cannot be traced back to the user. Also, the VPN encrypts your data so that other people cannot steal or read your information. 

A VPN is, at its core, a proxy connection with a high level of encryption: a much safer and anonymous alternative than other services that hide your IP. There are many different VPN providers out there, so there will always be one that fits your needs.

Final considerations

There are many people who would love to get their hands on your personal information. This data can be used to personalize ads and optimize services, but also to steal or keep an eye on you. Therefore, it is important to keep your privacy assured. For that, you have a proxy, the Tor browser or a VPN. 

Although the proxy does not encrypt your online activities, Tor and VPN provide effective protection. Using both will protect you even more: you can easily get a VPN and browse using Tor simultaneously. This way, other people will have a hard time trying to get your personal information.

Who can see your browsing history and the websites you’ve visited?

Do you have any questions about your privacy or about steps you can take to enforce it? In this case, check out the FAQs below.

There are various people and entities that can spy on you online, such as the websites you visit, government agencies, hackers, search engines, internet providers, and many others. 

If you’re looking for a complete overview of all of them, check out our article: “Who can see your browsing history and the sites you’ve visited?“, scroll down until you find the complete table.

This varies greatly from who is tracking and what security measures you have taken. For example, if you used a public Wi-Fi hotspot to access your internet banking without any security measures, your banking information could easily end up in the hands of a hacker. Also, Google can clearly see what you are searching for.

But luckily, while some people can see and track a lot of what you do online, there are many steps you can take to significantly increase your privacy. You can check these measurements in our article on anonymous web browsing.

There are several ways to increase your privacy. You can use privacy-focused search engines such as DuckDuckGo and the Tor browser, you can install ad blockers and extensions that remove cookies, among others. 

A great way, and the most recommended by us, is to use a  VPN. After all, VPNs hide your IP address in addition to encrypting your data traffic.