The internet can be a dangerous place.
It can be dangerous in and of itself, but more often, it’s dangerous because it encourages us to make lazy assumptions. If X=true, therefore Y=true. But correlation doesn’t equal causation – even if we prefer to think it does, because that would make more sense to us.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that we think we understand what VPNs do. They make you anonymous and invisible online, right?
Yes. But also, as it happens, no.
VPNs are extremely useful when you’re browsing. They can allow you to stay private in the moment of your search. But when it comes to keeping your search and browsing history a secret, things get a little more complicated. It’s not as straightforward as:
VPNs make us anonymous when we browse online, therefore they hide our search and browsing history.
The key is in understanding which history and which searches a VPN can hide – and from whom. The answers are a little surprising.
The breadcrumb trail – your pathway the net
First, let’s break it down. What path does your information follow when you type in a request online?
You type in a query, say “The dark side of Mongolian folk dancing.”
That string of letters and spaces, that query, is sent from your browser to a router, and then to your ISP.
In a vast majority of cases, your ISP auto-routes the query to a search engine, and in the vast majority of cases, that means Google. So, in that action alone, you typing in some letters at your computer have connected that search term to a vast and powerful tool for information-gathering, that exists beyond your machine.
To get there, the term leaves a kind of breadcrumb trail along every device and every part of the web it touches. Your machine, your browser, your router, your ISP, Google.
Any of those machines and destinations can usually log the existence of the breadcrumbs. And if you don’t use something that can hide or interrupt the trail, they can stay logged, so the connectivity between your computer and the dark side of Mongolian folk dancing remains, insubstantial but observable by those who care to search for breadcrumb trails in the ether.
That’s the situation without a VPN.
With a VPN, because they’re marketed on the basis that they keep us anonymous, we assume they obliterate the breadcrumbs of our searches, and that without those breadcrumbs to link back to us, there can be no history of the trail.
What actually happens is that VPNs obliterate or hide some of the breadcrumbs. Some breadcrumbs remain and can’t be hidden – from some people.
Are you hidden from your ISP?
Let’s take this in order. Does a VPN hide your browsing and search history from your ISP?
Yes, more or less. A VPN uses strong encryption, so your ISP can see you connect to a VPN server, and then, practically, vanish. The sites you visit, the terms you search for, are completely hidden from your ISP.
How about from Google?
That’s where things get a little… sticky.
Google is a search engine. It collects past searches. So even if you’re connected to a VPN server, Google will record the details of your search terms. Your search history can still be visible to Google and can be linked back to you.
Obviously, if you’re signed in to Google when you search on Google, VPNs are of relatively little use to you. You’re signed into the Google system, which is a backlink identifier to you, however confident you are in your VPN to anonymize you.
So, as any kind of first step, sign out of your Google account.
Google does not, in any way, shape or form, want you to be able to hide from it. The company uses sophisticated algorithms and techniques specifically to identify who uses it and what they use it for.
Google can still identify you by stored cookies, by the browser or operating system you’re using, or even in some cases by your GPS location.
You want to hide your search history from Google? OK. Well, step #1 would be to not use Google.
That’s tricky, because people use Google for good reasons – its search algorithms are second to none. There are some other search engines emerging which don’t log or collect any data, such as DuckDuckGo.
If you can, and you want to remain unseen by Google, install one of them and select it as your default, so your search terms don’t get passed to Google as a matter of course, but to your data-forgetful search engine.
If you absolutely need to use Google, and you want to be as anonymous as possible, make sure you’re signed out of Google, then connect to your VPN. Disable any browser GPS detections, or set your geographical data to Unshared. Open an Incognito or Private Browsing window. And then search on Google.
Do VPNS hide your browsing history from your router?
Yes, VPNs will hide your search history from at least a domestic-level router. What they won’t be able to hide is times when you connected to a VPN server. Who would care about that tiny piece of information is uncertain.
Does a VPN hide your browsing history from your employer?
Usually, yes. The way employers usually log activity from terminals is similar to the way an ISP does it, so technically, the VPN should hide your searches from them in the same way too. They’d be able to tell when you logged onto a VPN server, but that’s it.
Unless your employer uses keystroke logs, you should be fine. That said, it’s not a great idea to use VPNs from a work address.
How about your local browser history?
No, A VPN won’t hide any browser history stored locally on your machine. There is usually a straightforward process to flush your search history in your settings and preferences, though.
Using Incognito or Private Browsing windows as a matter of course will help keep your browser history as anonymous as possible, because it wipes your history as soon as the files are closed.
In short, unless you take extra measures, Google will be able to track your search history (but not your browsing history). Your browser may be able to track both your browsing and your search history even with a VPN.
But there would usually have to be extremely extenuating circumstances before they would reveal that data to anyone else.