Who Can See Your Browsing History and the Websites You Visited?

Click here for a summary of this article
Who Can See Your Browsing History and the Websites You Visited? - A Quick Guide

Whenever you’re online, there are many parties that will try to spy on you, from the websites you’re visiting, to governments and even search engines such as Google.

Internet service providers too can see a lot of what you’re doing online. It’s becoming increasingly important to protect yourself from parties spying on you.

Your data, such as your browsing history, your IP address, and even your personally identifiable information can be accessed. Taking security measures is very important. Here’s what you can do:

  • Use a VPN. We highly recommend NordVPN.
  • Access websites with a proxy.
  • Use the Tor browser.
  • Disable cookies on your browser.
  • Use a privacy-focused browser like Brave.

Are you interested in learning more about how your data is viewed and accessed by other parties? Read the full article in detail below!

We leave breadcrumbs of personal information as we use the web more frequently. We use the internet to take care of finance, keep an eye on our health, and stay in touch with friends, family, and colleagues.

One of the ways in which companies and governments keep tabs on our online activity is your history. But, have you ever wondered who can view your browsing history and what you can do about it?

Without realizing it, each and every one of us is sending a lot of information out into the void. In this article, we’ll give you a brief insight into the parties that can view your browser information, and how to protect it.


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 a few parties that see what you’re doing online.

The second column gives you more information on what each party could have on you and what they could be doing with it.

WHO CAN SEE YOUWHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Internet service providers (ISP)
  • CAN see websites you visit, your social media, who you email
  • CAN potentially view details regarding your health and finances
  • ISPs save your data for up to a year (or longer), depending on local legislation
Your (Wi-Fi) network’s administrator
  • CAN see the websites you visit, social media you use, videos you watch
  • CAN’T see what you fill in exactly on secured forms on HTTPS sites
  • Your school/employer usually falls into this category
Operating systems
  • CAN see websites you visit, social media, videos you watch
  • CAN see your location (when activated)
  • Possibility to ask them for a data report (if you’re an EU citizen)
Websites
  • CAN see your online behavior on some websites
  • Tracking is done via cookies
  • CAN personalize ads and adjust them to fit your online behavior
Search engines
  • CAN see your search history
  • CAN see your search results
  • Google: has data from all platforms you use your Google account on
Apps
  • CAN see your location, account info, email address
  • Different for every app based on the permissions you give them
  • Tip: Pay particular attention to an app’s privacy statement
Governments
  • CAN ask your Internet Service Provider to hand over your browsing data
  • Track online behavior to fight (cyber) crime
  • Tend to limit online freedom and privacy in some way
Hackers
  • CAN possibly see your browser history, login data, financial details, etc.
  • Depends on the kind of attack

What Does My Internet Service Provider See?

Incognito Mode IconYour internet service provider, or ISP, is your gateway to the internet. This means they automatically receive 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.

Even incognito mode doesn’t keep you safe. Your ISP knows which websites you visit, what you do on social media, and who you message.

Sometimes they even know more than you might like about private matters like your personal health or your finances. Using all of this data, your ISP could create an accurate profile on you and tie it to your IP address.

This is one of the reasons why it might be good to hide your IP address. Most countries have laws on data retention. These laws decide for how long ISPs should save any data they collect.

In some places, this period is six months, while in others it’s at least a year. In this period, governments and the police could call upon ISPs to share data. What happens to your data afterward, isn’t always clear.

It likely differs per provider and, again, per country. However, it’s often forbidden for ISPs to sell your data to third parties.

What Does My (Wi-Fi) Network’s Administrator See?

Laptop With LockThe 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 Burger King’s free Wi-Fi, or public Wi-Fi anywhere.

Bar from any hack, which is always a risk on public Wi-Fi, who can see what you’re doing? The administrator of your network will be able to see all of your browser history. This means they can retain and view almost every webpage you’ve visited.

Part of your browsing history is safe: HTTPS provides you with a tiny bit of extra security. Have you visited websites that use this protocol?

Today, almost every website uses it, so you’re mostly safe as long as the website has that tiny padlock beside the URL.

What does my boss see?

A frequently asked question 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, he or she can see nearly everything you do, the same as any other network administrator could.

Aside from that, don’t forget that your employer — or anyone with access to your (work) computer and account — could easily look into your browser history. Therefore it might be best not to play any Facebook games during work hours.

What Does My Operating System Record?

Windows operating system privacyYour device’s operating system (Windows, iOS, Linux.) also knows a thing or two about you. You can adjust the privacy settings of Windows 10 and iOS in order to keep yourself as safe as possible while using their systems.

Even then, however, your operating system is likely to have access to a lot of your data.

To get somewhat of an idea of the data your operating system saves, have a look at the parental control programs that are built into the system. With parental control, you can keep an eye on the online activities of your kids.

You’ll see what websites they visit, what YouTube videos they watch, and what social media they use. This information is all sent to you through your operation system, which means the system itself has access to all this data.

Computer without VPN software with a broken padlock on a shield iconJust like your ISP, your operating system is also required (by EU law) to give you a full report on any collected data. Windows gives this possibility as well.

You can check what Microsoft knows which apps you’ve opened, which search terms you’ve used, which movies you’ve seen, and sometimes even where you are.

As long as you use programs and apps that are run on Windows (and owned by Microsoft), such as the Edge browser and Windows Movie Player, Microsoft knows exactly what you’ve been up to.

What Do Websites See?

Hacker coming out of the webcamThe websites you visit often collect information about you. They use your data in order to improve their services or make specific recommendations only to you.

This is why you need a login name and password on different social media websites. By collecting data and placing cookies, websites can easily track your online behavior.

Websites use cookies to collect information. A cookie could, for example, remember which pages of an online store you’ve visited. Or, how you interacted with a website, including the keywords you used.

This way, the website knows which products you’ve looked at, and can target ads accordingly. This increases the chance that you’ll come across an ad for something you might actually want to buy.

Cookies: Good or bad?

Browser cookies iconYou’ve probably heard of cookies. Most of us can’t get around the pop-ups on websites asking for permission to place them. But what are cookies? Cookies are pieces of text that save information about the websites you’ve visited on your browser.

Actually, cookies are mostly very useful: they make sure you have a faster and easier browsing experience. Navigating websites will happen much more quickly and smoothly when you visit a second time.

They remember your login and enable websites to adjust their ads to fit you better. But the information cookies collect is also being sent to the websites themselves.

Due to GDPR requirements in Europe, most websites will tell you when and if they collect cookies. They even have to explicitly ask their EU visitors for permission.

The only issue here is that a lot of sites won’t work half as well if you don’t give them permission to place cookies.

At the same time, of course, it’s a huge breach of privacy. So it all depends on the specific cookies websites use.

What Do Search Engines See?

Google G LogoEach search you do and every link you click on says something about who you are. This data is often collected and saved.

The most popular search engine in the world, good old Google, has a unique position when it comes to data collection.

They collect tons of information from what you search (as well as how you use other Google products) and then use that information to promote products from third parties.

Because of the many services Google owns, the company has gigantic databases of information on its users. 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 form a scarily accurate profile of you. Whether it concerns information about your future plans or the way you look, Google knows.

A search engine that goes completely against the grain and doesn’t take part in data collection at all, is DuckDuckGo.

Anonymous searching is the main focus of the service: your searches will never be saved and consequently the results won’t be tailored to your behavior. DuckDuckGo uses the Tor network, which allows for strong levels of encryption to ensure anonymity.

What Data Can Apps See?

Apps on your computer, laptop, tablet, and smartphone also receive part of your online data. Every app has access to the information you send and receive within that app. The type and amount of information collected differ from app to app.

Location pin hidden behind IP address panel with change/restart iconFor example, GPS apps and most dating apps will need your location in order to function properly, while other apps need an email address to allow you to create an account.

Usually, each app has its own privacy agreement, which states what they use your data for. Apple, for instance, requires every published app on its store to have a discrete privacy policy.

It’s often quite useful to read these statements, so you become more aware of what kind of data companies collect.

What Do Governments See?

Eye on LaptopAs mentioned before, ISPs are often required by law to save your data for a certain period of time. Local governments or police can ask your ISP for this data as part of an investigation.

This is one of the ways in which governments could gain access to your online data. This information can be used to fight (cyber)crime. In some countries, illegal uploaders are identified this way.

You might not have a lot to fear from your country’s ruling force as long as you stick to the law — but even then it might be a little uncomfortable to know the government (and not just your local government) could be looking over your shoulder.

Your data could 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 hugely impede their civilians’ privacy.

The situation is even more extreme in some countries. There, governments use online information on their subjects to repress their freedoms.

In Egypt, for example, several bloggers have been arrested for being critical of the country’s leaders online. There are ways, of course, to bypass online censorship easily.

What Can Hackers See?

Hacking and malware iconOf course, people might also try to uncover your online activities in illegal ways. Hackers and cybercriminals can collect data about you by breaking into your computer or network.

There are countless tricks that make your information more vulnerable. If you’re dealing with a black hat hacker or a real cybercriminal, this data could then easily be used against you.

Think of serious crimes like identity theft. It’s important to protect yourself against such attacks. It’s important to be aware of phishing attempts, and only add your information on trusted sites.


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

Just like us, you probably hate the idea of your data being vulnerable and exposed to so many different parties. Luckily, there are several ways to remain anonymous online. The main trick is to hide your IP address.

Data breaches iconIf your IP is hidden, it becomes much harder to trace what you do online. There are still a few other ways that people can use to trace you, but these are generally a fair bit more complex and not as common as IP-tracking, such as browser fingerprinting.

There are different ways to cloak your IP: you could use a proxy, download the Tor browser, or install a VPN. Below, you’ll find an explanation of each of these options.

Proxy server

Using a proxy server means your actual IP address won’t be revealed to the websites you visit. The drawback of a proxy is that your data won’t be encrypted and, therefore, 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.

Tor browser

Tor The Onion Router LogoThe Tor browser allows you to send all your online traffic via a worldwide network of servers. With each step, the Tor network adds layers of encryption to your data. Moreover, the Tor browser 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 no longer as safe as you could be.

Please note: The Tor browser is a great way to improve your privacy. However, there are people who actually abuse the Tor browser to obtain its users’ data.

Many of its so-called “exit nodes” (the last server your traffic passes through before moving on to its destination) are publicly listed online. As such, there are people who try to get a hold of these servers to steal your data traffic.

And so, we advise always connecting to a VPN before using the Tor browser, for an added layer of encryption and protection.

VPN connection

VPN connection InternetA VPN provides you with a new IP address that can’t be traced back to you as a user. Moreover, the VPN encrypts your data, so others won’t be able to steal or read it any longer.

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.

There are several top VPN providers out there, so there’ll always be one that fits your needs. More importantly, VPNs continue to get better and better!


A VPN Improves Your Privacy: NordVPN Keeps Online Spies at Bay

Screenshot of NordVPN, homepage with logo

NordVPN is an excellent VPN for internet users who take their privacy seriously. This VPN 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’s no-logging policy means they do not store any of your data. So in case of a breach of NordVPN, your privacy is still protected. They also have thousands of servers around the globe.

NordVPN
Our pick
Our pick
Deal:
Only $2.98 a month for a two-year subscription with a 30-day money-back guarantee!
From
$2.98
9.3
  • Excellent protection and a large network of servers
  • Nice and pleasing application
  • No logs
Visit NordVPN

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. There are a number of other online best practices you can employ to limit your information footprint. Here they are:

  1. Use a privacy-focused browser. If Tor doesn’t sound great for you, there are better tools out there like Brave or Firefox.
  2. Tweak your privacy settings on the browser you use. These are usually available in Settings > Privacy. Google’s privacy settings for example can benefit from a lot of tweaking.
  3. Disable the cookies installed on your browser. The option to remove them is usually available in the same menu, but it depends on your browser.
  4. 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.

Final Thoughts

There are quite a few parties that 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.

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

Using both will protect you even more: you can easily get yourself a VPN and use the Tor browser at the same time. This way, other parties will have great trouble trying to get to your personal information.

Also, if you want to send messages anonymously, be sure to read our “How to Send Anonymous Emails” article.

Who Can See Your Browsing History and the Websites You Visited? - Frequently Asked Questions

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

There are tons of different parties who can spy on you online, such as websites you visit, governments, hackers, search engines, internet service providers and many other parties. If you’re looking for a complete overview of all of these parties, check out our article: “Who Can See Your Browsing History and the Websites You Visited?” Then scroll down to the useful table for the complete overview.

This differs greatly depending on the party and on which safety precautions you’ve taken. For instance, if you use a public WiFi hot spot for online banking without taking any safety measures, you’re financial details might very well end up in the hands of a hacker. At the same time Google can obviously see what you’re searching for.

Fortunately however, even though different parties can see and track a lot of what you’re doing online, there are several things you can do to drastically improve your privacy. What these ways are you can check in our article about surfing the web anonymously.

There are several ways to improve your privacy, such as using privacy-minded search engines like DuckDuckGo and the Tor-browser, installing ad blockers and extensions that remove cookies and many other ways. A great way that we wholeheartedly recommend to everyone is by using a VPN. After all, a VPN hides your IP address and also encrypts your data traffic.

This greatly depends on a number of factors, such as what parties are involved and which of your data they have 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 very easily obtain your bank details to enrich themselves with your hard-earned cash, 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.

Tech journalist
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 and has tested dozens of VPNs over the years.
10
Comments
Leave a comment
  1. If WIN 10 privacy settings are enabled to collect data then can private browsing mode and a VPN prevent it?

    • 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.

  2. 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”?

    • 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.

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

    • 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.

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

    • 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.

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

    • 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.

Leave a comment