Our online lives are becoming more and more extensive every day. We use the internet to take care of our financials, to keep an eye on our health and to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues. Without realizing it, each and every one of us is sending a lot of information out into the void.
Since projects such as Wikileaks and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden have brought to light that many official institutions are constantly eavesdropping on people, privacy is becoming a frequently discussed topic. Who’s listening in? Has your personal information been shared with third parties? Which organizations can track you online, and what do they see exactly? These are the questions we’ll be answering for you.
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Who can see what I’m doing online?
There are many different parties that could be tracking us online. In the table below, we’ve listed a few that you might want to take into account. 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 YOU||WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW|
|Internet service providers (ISP)||
|Your (Wi-Fi) network’s administrator||
What does my ISP see?
Your internet service provider, or ISP, is your gateway to the internet. Everything you do online, goes past your ISP. This means they automatically receive a lot of information about you and your online life. As long as your online data isn’t sufficiently encrypted, your ISP will see it all. Even the incognito mode doesn’t keep you safe. Your ISP knows which websites you visit, what you do on social media and who you email. Sometimes they even know more than you might like about private concerns such as 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, at least, save any data they collect. However, this legislation differs per country: 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 the ISPs to share data. What happens to your data afterwards, 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.
It might be nice to know that encrypted data, such as WhatsApp messages locked behind end-to-end encryption, aren’t visible to your ISP. If you live in the EU and want to know what data your provider has collected on you, the GDPR gives you the right to ask for a full report.
What does my (Wi-Fi) network’s administrator see?
Many will be aware of the fact that 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 Burger King’s free Wi-Fi. Once you’re aware of this, any internet connection that isn’t an openly available Wi-Fi network might sound extremely safe and secure. This is only partly the case: contrary to Wi-Fi, a cable connection doesn’t allow everyone to look into your online activities.
But there’s still someone who could: 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? Then the administrator won’t be able to see exactly what you’ve done on that webpage.
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, 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 your operating system see?
Your device’s operating system (Windows, iOS, etc.) 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, they’ll 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.
Just 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. If you make use of this, you’ll see that 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 owned by Windows, such as the Edge browser and Windows Movie Player, Microsoft knows exactly what you’ve been up to.
What do websites see?
The websites you visit often collect information about you. They use your data in order to improve their services or make specific functions available 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.
You’ve probably heard of cookies. Most of us can’t get around the pop-ups on websites asking for permission to place them. Actually, cookies are mostly very useful: they make sure you have a faster and easier internet experience. Cookies save information about the websites you’ve visited on your browser, so navigating those websites will happen much more quickly and smoothly when you visit a next time. They remember your login and enable websites to adjust their ads to fit you better.
The information cookies collect is also being sent to the websites themselves. Due to the GDPR in Europe, most website 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.
What do search engines see?
Just like websites, search engines also collect a lot of information on their users. Each search you do and every link you click 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. While Google started as ‘just’ a search engine, the company now owns countless services that are all paid for with advert money. Many of those ads are personalised using the data Google has collected. So, in essence, Google actually makes its money by selling your user data to other 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. We’ll tell you some more about Tor later on in this piece.
What do apps see?
Apps on your computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone also receive part of your online data. Every app has access to information you send and receive within that app. The sort and amount of information collected differs per app. For 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. This is always the case in the Apple Store, because Apple made having a privacy agreement a requirement for all apps that want to be included in the store. 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?
As 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 on 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.
What do hackers see?
Of course, people might also try to uncover your online activities in illegal ways. Hackers and cybercriminals could 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. That’s why we’ve summed up a few ways in which you can protect your online data and get a grip on your privacy.
How do I keep others from seeing what I do online?
You probably like the idea of having all these parties looking over your shoulder about as much as we do: not at all. Luckily, there are several ways to remain anonymous online. The main trick is to hide your IP address. If your IP is hidden, no one can trace what you do online. 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.
Using a proxy server means your 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 is minimal.
The 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 gives you access to 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.
A VPN connection is the most advanced option when it comes to online privacy and safety. A 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 many different VPN providers out there, so there’ll always be one that fits your needs.
Plenty of parties would very much like 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.