January 10, 2022

Privacy Tip of the Week: Erase Your Browsing History

Posted by Rhiannon

Browsing history is a collection of data about the activity you conduct while surfing the web. It includes things like the websites you visit, and the files you download. For the most part, the history collected makes web surfing more convenient for the user. You can take a look back at the pages you’ve visited before to easily find them again, redownload files you may have deleted, and more. However, browsing history may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The data it saves could be leaked in breaches or sold to third parties. It can even create awkward conversations if something “intimate” is discovered by someone sharing your browser. Here’s what you should know about browsing history:

  • What is browsing history?
  • Why do browsers collect it?
  • Why delete your browser history?
  • How do you delete your history?

What is Browsing History?

A web browser is your gateway to the internet. In order to access the World Wide Web, you have to go through a browser like Google’s Chrome, Apple’s Safari, or Mozilla’s Firefox. As soon as you open the web browser, you begin a “session,” which will continue until you close the browser again. During your session, all of your activity will be recorded by your browser and added to your history. Browsers typically collect data from three types of activity, including:

  • Your search and “travel” history. The information collected here lists every web page you visit during your session, and may include results from search engines, activity on social media and news outlets, videos watched, and more.
  • Download history. If you download a file during your session, the file name and source will be added to your browser history. You may also be able to download the file from your history again.
  • Cookies. Cookies are small pieces of code that get installed in your browser. Some of them make browsing more convenient. For example, some cookies allow websites to remember your login credentials so you don’t have to sign in every time you want to visit the site. Other cookies are more nefarious and may be used to track your activity to send it to advertisers and third parties. All cookies are stored in your browsing history.

Why Do Browsers Collect Your History?

There are two main reasons for browsers to collect your session history. The first reason aims to make browsing more convenient for the user. Stored activity history allows you to quickly search for and revisit websites you have navigated away from. Forget the name of that video you liked? Check your history. Need to reference a website for an essay but can’t find it again? Check your history. Download history functions much the same way. And, as discussed above, the cookies saved to your browser also help make browsing more convenient for you by remembering preferences like login credentials, browser language, ecommerce site currency, and more.

The other reason directly serves the company behind the browser. They can collect a ton of data about you from your search history and the cookies saved in your browser. That data helps them sell other services to you beyond browsing, and it can be sold to third parties, like advertisers, to make them some big bucks.

Why Delete Your Browser History?

Having access to your browsing history simply makes browsing better. However, this blog is all about telling you to erase it. Why would you do that if it makes the web more convenient?

Let’s take a look:

  • Stored login credentials put you at risk
  • Tracking cookies sell your data
  • You may see less ads
  • Some stored data can cause errors
  • Your “sensitive” searches are accessible by anyone

Stored Login Credentials Put You at Risk

When you sign in to websites, more often than not your browser will ask if you want to save your username and password. While this makes logging in next time much faster, it also means little bits of your private data are saved online. This puts your information at risk of data breaches and privacy loss. By routinely clearing your browsing history, the cookies that make password storing possible will be removed as well, thus increasing your online safety.

Tracking Cookies Sell Your Data

Some cookies are useful. But some track you on your travels across the internet, making them more of a privacy concern than a convenience. When the data collected by these cookies is sold to third parties (often without user consent, or through coerced consent), it allows organizations to create detailed user profiles about you based on your searches and interests which they can use for any purpose. Clearing your browsing history prevents cookies from tracking you for days, weeks, or even months and years.

You May See Fewer Targeted Ads

Everyone has searched for a product on Amazon and then seen that product in every ad on every page for weeks on end. Sometimes even mentioning a product out loud seems to be enough to see ads for it. This is caused by cookies tracking you even after you leave a website which can be annoying, a little creepy, and certainly privacy-threatening because, even if you use incognito mode, those cookies still recognize you. Clearing browsing history prevents websites from continuously following you with targeted ads.

Some Stored Data Can Cause Errors

All of a sudden, some websites stop letting you sign in. Or the images, graphics and logos stop displaying correctly. Or the text is suddenly in a language you’ve never seen in your life. In some cases, a website may even start working excruciatingly slowly. If this happens, old cookies may be to blame. Clearing them routinely may prevent these issues from happening.

Your “Sensitive” Searches are Accessible by Anyone

Because some cookies can follow you even when you use incognito mode, some of your searches aren’t as private as you want them to be if you share devices with loved ones. Buying presents for special occasions can lead to the surprise being ruined if cookies display the item in a targeted ad, and even more *ahem* private searches can be found out. Clearing your browsing history can prevent that awkward conversation.

How Do You Delete Your Browsing History?

Because stored history is so convenient, most people don’t want to delete it after every session. What a hassle, right? If that sounds like you, the best way to delete your history when it’s needed is to do it by hand. The steps vary based on the browser and device you use so here’s a guide that may help you delete your browsing history.

If you’re the type of person, however, who wants to clear your browsing history after every session, then you’re going to want a tool that helps you do it automatically. Some browsers may have a setting to do this. Other options include:

  • Browser extensions. Some companies have designed browser extensions that will automatically erase your history at the end of every session.
  • VPNs. A VPN, or virtual private network, is a privacy tool that gives users an anonymous and encrypted connection to the web. It also has the added benefit of deleting a user’s browsing history.

A convenient browsing experience is a good one, but a convenient and private browsing experience is even better. Deleting your browsing history routinely can help keep you safer and more private while using the world’s greatest resource; the World Wide Web.

Posted by Rhiannon

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