There is no such thing as complete secrecy in Web browsing. The question is how much information you reveal. Often it’s a lot more than you intended to. Your ISP or the owners of the sites you visit may be able to tell who you are, where you are, and what information you’re sending and receiving.
Giving away so much information can be unpleasant or even dangerous. Phishers collect browsing information to personalize their deceptive messages and make them more plausible. Government agencies look for suspicious browsing patterns that they think need investigation. Even effects as minor as skewed search results can be annoying.
You make it harder for strangers to collect information on you when you protect yourself online with a VPN. Your ISP and Wi-Fi hotspots can’t view your data, and websites don’t know your location.
HTTP and HTTPS
You already know that HTTPS browsing uses secure protocols that keep anyone from reading your information while conveying it. You may not know that this protection has limits.
HTTPS, using the TLS or SSL protocols, encrypts your browsing from end to end. Outside of unusual cases like stolen certificates, it’s effectively impossible for anyone else to decrypt your incoming and outgoing data. However, the domains or IP addresses you access are visible all along the way. Your ISP, Wi-Fi hotspot, and anyone tapping into your data stream can tell what sites you visit, when, and roughly how much data you use.
When a site uses unencrypted HTTP, the situation is worse. Everything that goes back and forth is readable by anyone who handles your communication. If you use public Wi-Fi, this could include a stranger sitting ten feet away with a snooping device.
Secure HTTPS pages often include images, ads, and other content that isn’t secure. It provides clues about what you’re reading and doing.
What the website knows
When you visit a website, it could know more about you than you realize. Tracking cookies let it share information with other sites and retain data on your previous visits. Your IP address reveals your approximate physical location, and it’s a way to track you from one session to the next.
Other tricks can narrow in on you further. There are ways of drawing images and reading them back, which are a little different depending on your computer, graphic chip, and browser.
A virtual private network can’t protect you against all of these techniques, but it’s an important part of your privacy protection strategy. Using one to access a website hides your personal IP address and physical location. You can even appear to be browsing from another country.
Does incognito mode help?
Major browsers offer a “private” or “incognito” mode, which limits the visibility of your browsing. It’s useful, but you have to understand what it doesn’t do. It keeps other users of your computer from seeing your history and hitching a ride on your logins. When you close a private window, the browser forgets all your activity in it, including any cookies.
However, it doesn’t hide anything from whoever handles your data on the Internet. Using an incognito window on public Wi-Fi doesn’t help against the serious security problems that any public hotspot has. Using it to protect your privacy is good, but it’s just part of the solution.
The components of a privacy protection strategy
Maintaining your privacy while browsing the Internet requires a multilevel strategy. If you follow all these practices, it will be hard for anyone to track your Web habits.
- Be careful what you reveal. Little things that you say about yourself can add up to a detailed picture.
- Avoid insecure HTTP sites. If you use one, remember that everything you do on it is easily visible.
- Use a virtual private network to encrypt data and conceal your activity from your ISP and Wi-Fi access points. Be sure the VPN you use is one you can trust.
These practices will keep your browsing information out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have it. You will be safer from annoyances, fraud, and unjustified suspicion.