Is Your Web Browsing Really Private?

Category: Privacy

Every time you use the Web, you leave traces of your activity in many places. Some of that is the way the Internet was designed, and some is a little more tricky. If you're interested in hiding your online tracks with web privacy tools, read on...

Web Privacy Tools

Every time you visit a website, a log file on that server records the pages you viewed, along with the date, time, your IP address and a few other tidbits of information. That's normal, but if it sounds scary, I encourage you to read my related article Does IP Address Reveal my Physical Location? to find out why none of that information identifies you personally.

However, those aren't the only tracks you leave when you browse the world-wide web. Web browsers store your browsing history. Sites that you visit plant cookies that describe where you've been, what you've clicked, and where you go after you leave. Other people who use your computer can access much of this information easily, and so, possibly, can strangers out there on the Internet.

Web Privacy Software

The good news is that Web browsers have privacy options built into them. In Internet Explorer, click Tools > Internet Options. In the "Browsing History" section, you'll see a checkbox labeled "Delete browsing history on exit." Check this box if you want Internet Explorer to delete all traces of your web browsing history each time you close the browser. For finer control, use the Delete Button, which will let you selectively wipe your browsing history, temp files, cookies, form data and saved passwords. The Settings button next to Delete lets you control how many days of history should be stored.

In Firefox, you'll find these options on the Tools > Options > Privacy tab. You can set Firefox to clear your history and cached files after every session, or store such data for a limited time. You can also control and selectively delete cookies here. In Chrome, click the Options (or Wrench) icon at the top right of the window, click Settings, then click "Show Advanced Settings" at the bottom of the page. In the Privacy section, you can use the "Clear browsing data" button to selectively delete browsing history items.

You can even kick it up a notch and use the "private browsing feature" which prevents your browser from storing cookies and browsing history. See my article Private Browsing for more details and instructions on how to turn on this feature in Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, or Safari web browsers. You'll also want to make sure to see the info there about how to pause or delete your Google Web History.

Do Not Track and the Downside

You may have heard about a web browser option called "Do Not Track". It's supposed keep "evil advertisers" from tracking your online activities. All major browsers have a way to enable this option, but because of the way the Microsoft chose to implement it, the most website operators and the entire online ad industry have pledged to ignore this setting. Turn it on if you like, but it won't do much of anything. So for now, there's really nothing to see here. You can search online for "Do Not Track controversy" if you want to learn more about it.

There is a downside to deleting your cookies, passwords and form data, or using the private browsing/no-tracking options. Websites that offer personalization or customization may not work properly, or may have missing content on the page, where third-party or personalized content would normally appear. You'll have to enter your username and password every time you visit sites that require a login.

There's also the issue of ads. The use of browser cookies allows advertisers to show ads that are relevant to you, based on the web pages you visit. Turning on some of these "privacy" options won't turn off the ads, but it will force the browser to display generic or non-targetted ads. Personally, I'd rather be "tracked" if it means that the ads I see are potentially relevant to my interests or needs.

Web Privacy Software Downloads

For even more privacy protection, check out this list of free and paid programs you can download:

CCleaner is one of the most popular (and free) web "cleanup" tools. It works with all major browsers, and can delete your temp files, web history, cookies and form data. As a bonus, CCleaner can also delete unwanted files on your hard drive and acts as a registry cleaner too.

GoTrusted Secure Tunnel makes all of your Web browsing anonymous and secure with a portable Virtual Private Network (VPN). It creates an encrypted, firewalled connection even on public WiFi hotspots that are not secured with an encrypted password. It hides your IP address from eavesdroppers. GoTrusted does not erase cookies, history lists, or other traces of your activities stored on your hard drive, but it does protect you from snoopers lurking online. GoTrusted is free to try for 7 days, after which your credit card will be billed $5.99 per month.

Easy-Hide-IP is an IP address anonymizer that, according to the company, "bypasses virtually any form of censorship or internet traffic blocking imposed on you by your ISP, your company, or third parties." With the Easy-Hide-IP proxy installed on your computer, all of your Internet traffic is routed through remote servers. As a result, the log files of the websites you visit will list the anonymizer's IP address, not yours. You can even choose your faux IP address and location, and encrypt all Web connections made by your browser or other Internet-enabled applications. Easy-Hide-IP's unlimited service costs $4.95 per month or $29.99 for a full year.

Another option, the Internet Privacy Service from, is highly respected and has been around for many years, but is more pricey at $79.99 per year. You can find free anonymizer/proxy services, but they tend to be painfully slow, and may expose your computer to malware.

Do you have something to say about web privacy software? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is Your Web Browsing Really Private?"

Posted by:

08 Mar 2013

Anonymox works as a Firefox add-on and is free or you can pay to be ad free.

Posted by:

08 Mar 2013

Just wondering if you have any comments (pro or con) about startpage

Posted by:

East Slope Charlie
08 Mar 2013

I found one HOTSPOT SHIELD -- free with adds. BUT -- it locked me out of my credit card sign-n page, and MAY disconnect my WinAmp when I stream BBC overnight. It has a paid edition (not sure how much) and I'm not sure I am really happy with it. That could be because it's not totally 'transparent' or it could be because I don't like it for reasons I'm not even sure about. BOB: do you know this program and, if so, what do you think of it? -- I prefer to stay with stuff YOU recommend (or MANY readers concur on) since Comp Sci is NOT my area of specialty. And a PhD trumps a guy who just kinda pretends he knows how to run a college lab. Thanks if you answer, and thanks if you don't - I got a LOT of my information when I was riding a bus to a school full of squirrels to learn about the 'new' (so-called 'internet') when it turned from text to graphic. thanks either way.

Posted by:

08 Mar 2013

Re: startpage
I like it, it's parent Ixquick, and DuckDuckgo for privacy. Interestingly, I have been immediately presented Google ads based on searchs through Ixquick, when I did not use the "Proxy" option to go to the search results. They say the proxy service prevents snoopers like Google from getting the info from my ISP, which obviously happens, but should be prevented by default IMO. The use of the proxy linking has it's drawbacks: your term is highlighted throughout the message, page is in large proxy frame, forms are disabled.
Scroogle search did the same private Google search, but Google found a way to block them, shutting them down. Google(Android) gives multiple Security warnings on my cell about invalid certificates, when I try to search through Ixquick and when I try to search DuckDuckGo it perpetually says, "Unable to connect to the internet. Please check your connection and try again", when I have a perfect 5 bar connection and WiFi connected. Plenty of sound reasons to use private search services.

Posted by:

09 Mar 2013

I too would like to know if "Startpage"(Free) is okay to use as my brother has recomended for me to use it

Posted by:

10 Mar 2013

Thank you jd,looks promising.

Posted by:

11 Jan 2015

When using google chrome, even in "incognito", on my desktop I keep a short cut of IE options.

I notice, even if I deleted history, or incognito, the IE STILL picks up history, when using google chrome.

How can I stop IE from picking up my history, from another browser?

Thanks Bob,

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