Spending a quiet evening alone surfing the web on your couch may feel like a solo activity. But in reality, information from your web browsing sessions in anything but private.
This has been true on some level since the inception of casual internet use. Anyone who gets on to a shared computer or with access to your laptop can open up a browser and view your activity log.
But it has been true on a larger level as well, with internet service providers and governments able to see your web traffic. And in 2017, Congress repealed Obama-administration era privacy protections concerning internet activity. Now, ISPs can legally collect and sell user data to advertisers or marketing firms.
Whether you’re concerned about a nosy housemate or the more omniscient watchful eye of your ISP, you may be wondering how to increase your browser privacy controls.
To start from square one, you can use browser clear history options to wipe evidence of your activity from anyone with actual direct access to your browser. You should note, however, that these elemental options do not actually remove ISP access to that information.
For instance — to use this function on Chrome, head to your History tab. Then click “Show Full History.” This will bring you to a new history page. On the left hand side, you can click “Clear Browsing Data.”
You’ll then have the opportunity to choose from a variety of options. Under the basic tab, you can choose to clear your browsing history for a variety of time windows from the past 24 hours all the way to “all time.” You can also choose to clear cookies and cache data.
In the advanced tab, you can select from more options including to clear your download history.
It’s not just Chrome. Other web browsers will give you this option, as well.
[Facebook is working on its own Clear History tool.]
You can simplify the process of private browsing on your physical computer by using a Private/Incognito Window. The information of where you browse in these windows will not show up in your browser’s search history.
To open an Incognito window in Chrome, click the File tab in your browser. Then hit “New Incognito Window.” You should be able to find similar private windows in other browsers in the same place.
Using A VPN
To actually try to protect some of your information from ISPs, you’ll have to take greater precautions than just hiding your activity with built-in browser options.
One choice to think about is using a VPN, also known as a Virtual Private Network. Using a VPN allows for encrypted browsing. This can prevent ISPs from tracking your online history. When you use the internet, your activity won’t show up as coming from you directly.
There are a variety of available VPNs you can choose to use through a subscription service. VPNs do typically cost money, so be prepared to build this choice into your monthly internet cost calculations. And make sure to do your research beforehand — not all VPNs are the same.
Tor + Opera
Tor also introduces encryption into your browsing equation, but this time as a browser itself. When you use the Tor Browser, it encrypts activity, shielding the information from ISPs. However, it obviously doesn’t extend past your browser to other information on your devices, and thus still leaves that data vulnerable.
To use Tor, head to the Tor project website, where you can download the software.
Another option is the Opera browser, which features a built-in VPN. This is not a true VPN in the traditional sense, but it does replace your IP address with a virtual IP address while activated, making it tougher to be tracked or identified.