Got something lurking in your Internet history you’re not especially proud of? There are ways to cover (some) of your tracks.
The Internet is a wide and wonderful place, full of all sorts of fascinating human endeavours. However, the gamut of human endeavours runs from the truly illuminating to the significantly… less savoury. Maybe you’ve been there, whether by design or by accident, or maybe you’ve been researching the perfect gift for your loved one, and you just don’t want them opening up a page that’ll give the game away before their birthday. Or maybe you’ve been browsing job boards at work and don’t want your boss to know about it. The reasons for clearing your Internet history can be wide and varied, and I’m certainly not going to specifically judge you.
So how do you go about making those sites you’ve visited vanish from your history? At a simple level, it depends on your choice of browser.
In Google’s Chrome browser, click the Chrome Menu (the three “hamburger” lines) and choose “History”. That should bring up the recent browser history, along with an option to clear your browsing data. You can delete selected ranges of your browsing history, bearing in mind that if you’re signed into your Google account it’ll show browsing history across all of your devices.
Microsoft Edge/Internet Explorer
On Microsoft’s Edge browser — the newer browser that comes with Windows 10 — select Hub>History, and then choose “Clear All History”
If you’re still using Internet Explorer, it’s probably wise to shift browsers, but if you really must, and want to clear your browsing history, click the Tools button within IE, then select Safety, and choose “Delete Browsing History”
If you’re a Firefox user, hit the menu button (the “hamburger” three lines menu) then History, and then choose “Clear Recent History”
For the Mac version of the browser, simply click on the Safari menu where it says “Safari” and choose “Clear History”. You can then choose how far back you want your historical wipe to go.
If you’re using Safari on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, you’ll need to go into the Settings app (not Safari itself), tap Safari there and choose “Clear History” from there.
What about private mode?
Most browsers offer a private, non-tracked mode that doesn’t record the history of sites visited, so in one respect you’re less tracked that way if someone else uses the same computer and browser after you.
That having been said, there’s nothing implicit in the way that privacy modes work that makes you any more actually private in one significant aspect, because you’ve still got to request a given site or service via your private browser window, and that request itself can be stored and tracked, even if your local browser doesn’t store it itself.
Clearing your history won’t hide everything
Clearing your Internet history by deleting it will clear it from your immediate browser cache, but there’s a very big red flag to throw at this right away. Just because it’s gone from your computer doesn’t mean that there’s no record of it anywhere. Tracking algorithms designed to serve you contextually relevant ads take note of when you visit particular sites via tracking bugs and cookies. Some browser clearing will clear some of those, but it depends on the context in which they are used.
This isn’t the only way you could be tracked, however. There’s the question of metadata, which doesn’t show what you’ve looked at, but the context in which you did it. The Australian government, which happily gathers metadata from all of us (I’ve written about this before) and, as it turns out, hands it over to a surprisingly wide array of businesses seemingly as a matter of course, as we discussed in a recent Vertical Hold.
The short form of this is that if you do it online, there’s no real guarantee that you’re completely anonymous. That’s the nature of a public internet, and while there are more complex tools that can make it harder for you to be tracked, if you’re on the public internet you’re by definition to some degree public.
Tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) can mask your IP address to a certain extent, depending on how much you trust the endpoints to be actually secure, but the reality (as with so many things online) is that if it’s online and someone has an interest in tracking it, it’s feasible that they may be doing so.
On a more local to your PC level, it’s also worth pointing out that having no history at all is something of a red flag to the fact that you’ve deleted your history recently, which could naturally bring up just as many questions as whatever you were doing in the first place.
How Do I? covers the basics, because we’ve all got to start somewhere.