From your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to the guy living next door, anyone can see your browsing data. Scary as this might seem, there are several caveats.
They need to have the skills and tools to do so, plus the motivation.
The problem with data privacy is that many approach it with a lackadaisical attitude. Many people don’t feel that there is an issue with websites or anyone else picking up bits of information online.
To understand the magnitude of the problem, let’s take a structured approach.
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What Your Browsing Data Contains
The data in your web browser isn’t simply a collection of the websites you’ve visited. If you haven’t done this already, take a peek in your web browser to see how much information it’s collected about your Internet activities so far.
Web browsers allow users to clear their browsing history. You don’t need to remove it right now, but following the same steps will show the amount of data accumulated since the last clear. The steps may vary slightly depending on the browser used.
Once you’ve opened up that screen to clear the browser data, you can likely see a list of different items. This list may include browser history, download history, cookies, cached files, and more.
It’s essentially your entire Internet usage profile – right down to where you went, what you did, how you did it, and more.
Who Wants to See Your Browsing Data
Earlier I mentioned that anyone who wants to could try and grab your browsing data. As long as they have the means and motivation, it’s fair game. Here are some of the top culprits that go after almost everyone’s browsing data.
Internet Service Providers
ISPs act as our local gateway to the Internet at large. They provide the infrastructure within a country that links us to the rest of the world. As a result, they sit in an ideal position to monitor every scrap of data passing through the network.
Unfortunately, ISPs in many countries are either subordinate to the many regulatory bodies or even the government. That means compliance with censorship demands, blocklists, and the like. But, unless they monitor every scrap of data, they can’t enforce those demands.
Next, we have perhaps the most significant data sharks in the world; corporations. This group is a massive demographic since it includes everyone from the biggest (Apple, Google, Facebook) to the smallest (mom-and-pop shops, small online stores).
They want your data for one simple reason; to know what you and everyone else want, then monetize it for all they’re worth.
If you don’t believe me, think about the last few things you searched for online. Next, jump on Facebook and browse your timeline. How many ads do you see trying to sell you something related to your most recent search queries?
What businesses want to know about you is simply too stunning to say. To get an idea of how broad the scope is, I’ve dedicated entire articles to some of the biggest culprits. Read these to see;
- How pervasively Google collects data about you
- How WhatsApp is making money off your back
- How your data funds Facebook
Imagine what a cybercriminal could do with the data from your browser. Well, that depends on what they find when they get it. As you may notice, if you did that little browser data experiment I showcased earlier, your browsing data includes login credentials.
Getting hold of data like this means they could try and hijack your accounts, steal money, or even your identity. If the cybercriminal feels lazy, they could also simply package up your data with all the other stolen data and sell it at bulk rates.
If that’s unimaginable, there are even cybercriminals who (I presume, out of the goodness of their hearts) give away stolen data for free.
Remember that creepy guy you saw perving on you from afar the other day? Do you know that with the right tools, he could track you down right down to your doorstep? That’s right, your browser data contains information that allows location traces as well.
The problem with oddballs like this is that you never know what may result from it. Something as harmless as heavy breathing over a phone line or perhaps an in-person visit in the middle of the night? Who knows.
Keeping Your Browsing Data Private
Before you begin, you need to take steps to clear up your browser data. First, use the links provided earlier in the article to remove all the data stored by your web browser. Be warned, though – if you’re relying on your browser to autofill credentials, that’ll be gone as well.
Once done, you can start taking a few steps to stay more private online. Of course, you don’t have to do everything listed here, but the more, the merrier.
1. Disable Browser Cookies
By nature, browsers want to handle all your data. It helps them improve services so more people will use their brand. It’s not the best solution for us, though, so start by disabling your browser cookies (See how to do this for Chrome and Firefox).
2. Sign up For a VPN Service
VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, are one way of ensuring rock-solid online privacy. These services run secure servers you can connect with, and everything gets routed through those servers. In addition, they protect your device from tracking and encrypt all information.
Many VPNs today also include other features like cookie and ad blocking, malware scanning, and other neat tricks. I have access to a massive selection of VPNs since I use them for work, but my favorite is Surfshark since it offers excellent back-for-buck.
VPNs for Privacy Protection
3. Use a Password Manager
As you’ll realize by now, most browsers have an autofill feature and can store the credential used for online services. However, that isn’t the most secure thing to do. So instead, I recommend you consider using a dedicated password manager; many of them are available on a freemium model, so take one out for a spin and upgrade if you like it.
I’ve been using NordPass for the past few months, and it helped me realize what an absolute mess Google has made of my digital credentials. For example, it kept a dozen copies of my credentials for most websites.
4. Consider a Privacy-oriented Browser
Chrome and Firefox are popular web browsers. Disliked though it is, even Microsoft Edge has massive awareness. However, have you heard of the Tor browser? Tor, or The Onion Router, was built from the ground up to protect data privacy.
It’s painful to use since the network is relatively slow, but it makes things supremely difficult for anyone who’s trying to track you or grab hold of your browsing data. However, the browser is free, and you can download a copy from the Tor website.
5. Use DuckDuckGo for Search
Google powers the world’s most popular search engine, and honestly, it works fantastically. However, it’s part of the Google armory of services that quietly collects as much data from you as possible.
There are many other search engines available aside from Google. One of them, DuckDuckGo, was specially designed to help you maintain your privacy. Again, this is another free option that just requires you to adjust your digital habits.
6. Consider a Cookie Blocker
If you don’t want to change your web browser or get a VPN, then at least consider adding a cookie blocker. These are available as web browser extensions, and you can find many available for Chrome and Firefox.
Most follow the simple premise of blocking anything trying to leave a tracker on your local machine. Be warned, though, that blocking cookies may sometimes break a website, so you’ll need to know when to disable this if things go south.
7. Review Permissions on Web Services
When you use a web service like a social media site or anything else that requires an account, you’re essentially giving them many permissions. While some may have limited options for you to toggle, others allow you to review permissions on what data you will enable to share or access.
Make sure you go through the list, no matter how extensive. Facebook is an excellent example of this; it tries to obfuscate things by making privacy options as confusing as possible and frequently “reshuffles” permissions and toggles them back on without you knowing.
8. Delete Browser Temp Files
Aside from the cached data, many browsers (actually, all applications) use temporary files to store stuff. Your cookies and such are part of this, and even if you clear them, more will appear. Make sure you delete these temp files periodically to ensure your browser is as clean as possible.
There are many ways people can grab hold of your browsing data, and most of the reasons they would want to aren’t that beneficial to us. Admittedly, there are legitimate use cases, but mostly it’s an excuse to monetize off the data. How far you go towards maintaining your data privacy is entirely up to you – I just hope this article has placed a few more options in your hands.