Whether you like it or not, your internet activity must first pass through your internet service provider (ISP) before it reaches any websites or apps. If you trust your ISP, you may be fine with this arrangement. But there are plenty of reasons not to trust your ISP, especially where privacy is concerned. In this article, we’ll look at how to hide your browsing history from your ISP.
ISPs are known to collect and share user data
In October 2021, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published a report on the privacy practices of six major American ISPs and found them lacking, to say the least. For example, most ISPs claim never to “sell” your data. While this is technically true, the fine print does allow them to “share” certain details of your browsing history with any number of third parties who sell them to data brokers, who use them to build a complex and uniquely identifying profile of your likes, wants, and needs and then sell that profile to advertisers, who bombard you with targeted ads all over the internet.
It’s not great.
While you can’t cut ISPs out of the equation entirely (they do provide the internet, after all), what you can do is encrypt your internet traffic before it gets to them. ISPs can still share the encrypted traffic with whoever they like, but no one will be able to understand it or know where it’s going—and they certainly won’t be able to monetize it.
So how do you keep your ISP in the dark? Spoiler alert: use a VPN! But since we’re being thorough, here’s a list of 5 ways you can hide your browsing history from your ISP (and others) with the power of encryption.
1. Use a VPN
Your internet service provider can’t see your history when you use a VPN.
That’s because using a VPN establishes a secure, encrypted connection between your device and the VPN server. Your ISP won’t be able to decipher any of your traffic, even as it passes right through their servers.
The best VPNs come with a few other features that can either improve or totally replace the other options on this list, so feel free to stop reading here if you’ve come for the quickest solution.
But if you’re curious about other ways to hide your browsing history from your ISP, read on.
2. Browse with Tor
Tor, which stands for The Onion Router, routes your internet traffic through a random series of different servers, or nodes, to hide the origin of your data and conceal your identity. It’s also the only way to access .onion sites on the dark web.
Developed by the U.S. Navy, the Tor network has since become a nonprofit tool that helps protect users’ anonymity. The downside is its slow speeds; it was originally set up to help whistleblowers and activists and isn’t optimized for casual browsing or streaming.
For even greater privacy, connect to a VPN, then open the Tor Browser. You’ll gain access to the Tor network without your ISP being able to identify you as a Tor user.
3. Change your DNS settings
The Domain Name System (DNS) is like the address book of the internet. It’s how your computer knows where to navigate when you type in “expressvpn.com,” for example. DNS matches site names to IP addresses so your browser can find the exact link you requested.
DNS came about in the late 1980s, when encryption wasn’t as mainstream as it is today. As a result, DNS requests by themselves are unencrypted and can be manipulated. They’re also susceptible to man-in-the-middle attacks, where malicious actors intercept the DNS query and redirect you to a harmful site.
If you’re already using ExpressVPN, however, you won’t need to worry about DNS at all. ExpressVPN uses its own encrypted DNS on every server to keep your browsing history private from third parties.
4. Install HTTPS Everywhere
HTTPS is the encrypted version of HTTP (Hypertext Transmission Protocol). When active—you’ll usually know from the padlock icon in your browser’s address bar—your ISP will still see which websites you’re browsing, but they won’t be able to see the contents of what you’re browsing.
For years, a tool called HTTPS Everywhere—created through a partnership between the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Tor Project—has provided a simple and unobtrusive way to help keep your data safe by forcing your browser to use encrypted HTTPS.
By the EFF’s own admission, however, this tool is becoming less necessary thanks to much of the internet now using HTTPS by default. But they currently still offer the tool on their website for those who want to be sure.
ExpressVPN includes HTTPS Everywhere in our browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Edge, so there’s no need to download it separately. ExpressVPN also hides both the contents and the destination of your traffic meaning your ISP can’t even see which websites you’re browsing (unlike with HTTPS alone).
5. Use a privacy-conscious search engine
If you’re worried about what your ISP knows about you from your browsing history, spare a moment to think about what Google knows about you from your search history.
Google’s business model is built on tracking data, using it for advertisements, and collecting the insights to make products it thinks you might use. The company makes no attempt to hide that, but does downplay the amount of data it collects (newsflash: it’s a lot!).
Note that unlike the other tools on this list, DuckDuckGo doesn’t hide your browsing history from your ISP; it simply doesn’t track or record your search history.
Bonus tip: Don’t rely on incognito mode for privacy
Many people believe that using a browser window in “incognito” or “private” mode will hide your IP address from nosy third parties, including ISPs.
Unfortunately, this belief is false. The only difference between regular browsing and incognito browsing is that your history is not stored on your browser. It simply means that if someone else with access to your device tried to access your browsing history, they would be unable to find it.
Your browsing activity, however, is still being sent to your ISP regardless of whether you’re using incognito mode. Likewise, your IP address is still visible to the sites that you visit. If you consent to cookies, they will also be stored on your computer and used to track your activity. There are little to no advanced security functions in incognito mode, and using it won’t safeguard your digital footprint.
Read more: What is incognito mode, and is it safe?
Extra bonus tip: Don’t forget about Wi-Fi operators
Your ISP isn’t the only third party that has access to your browsing history when you use the internet unprotected. Any service provider along your connection —from your device all the way to the website or app—could potentially see what websites you’re visiting. And that includes whoever owns the Wi-Fi router you’re using: your office, Starbucks, your roommate, your parents, etc.
Can a Wi-Fi administrator really see your browsing history? It depends on the router, and who’s checking. Only some routers allow you to access detailed logs of user activity, and even when they do, most home Wi-Fi owners aren’t motivated to spy on their guests. If a Wi-Fi operator were motivated, however, it would be relatively easy to see your browsing history, even if you use incognito mode.
FAQ: ISPs and your browsing history
How long do internet service providers keep your browsing history?
This depends on which country you are in. In the U.S., there is no law requiring ISPs retain their customer’s browsing history, although in some cases they can be compelled to by law enforcement.
And although most ISPs will say they do not “store” your browsing history per se, we do know they often share it with data brokers who sell it to advertisers, so the information must be stored somehow for some unspecified period of time.
Can my internet service provider see my deleted history?
Yes. Deleting your history from your browser or your device does nothing to stop it from reaching your ISP or any other third party along your connection. If you want to keep your browsing history private from your ISP, use a VPN to encrypt your traffic.
Can you contact your internet service provider to get your browsing history?
You can try, but your ISP will almost certainly say no. It is unlikely that an ISP would be willing to publicly admit that this information exists on file, and even less likely that they would be willing to provide it on demand for every customer, so it is much easier for them to decline.
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