Yes, your WiFi provider – also called an Internet Service Provider (ISP) – can see what you search and what sites you visit, even when you’re in incognito mode. The owner of the router will also be able to see what you search in the router logs. Incognito mode only prevents your site visits from being saved to your browser history.
Read on to learn more about how incognito mode works and who can see your search history.
What Is Incognito Mode and How Does It Work?
Incognito mode is a browser feature on Google Chrome that allows you to use the browser without creating a browsing history, including recording internet search queries or collecting cookies. Other browsers have similar features – Firefox and Safari both call it Private Browsing. They all work relatively the same way.
In incognito mode or private browsing, the browser will not record your site visits to the browsing history and will erase cookies at the end of your session. It will also log you out of any accounts you logged into during your session.
It was originally advertised as a way to hide your web traffic – to be able to shop for gifts undetected by your family or prevent internet trackers from following you.
It’s easy to assume that because incognito mode prevents tracking and browser history, it also provides other protections. However, there are limitations to the protection it offers, and it’s not safe to use incognito mode without cybersecurity best practices.
Benefits of incognito mode
Despite the limitations of incognito mode, it’s still useful for a variety of activities. Because it blocks trackers, you can avoid receiving targeted ads around topics that you’ve searched for. It will also prevent some people from seeing your search history.
Who Can See My Search History?
If you use incognito mode, people who borrow your device and don’t have access to your router logs will not be able to see your browsing history. Router logs are records on your router that show your web activity. Although incognito mode will prevent the browser from recording your activity, the router will still have this record. Anyone who can access these router logs will be able to see your search history.
Your Internet Service Provider
Your ISP has access to all your router logs. ISPs try to keep data confidential, however, they may need to hand over data if the government or police ask for it as part of an investigation.
The owner of the router or network
Whoever owns the router has access to router logs. But it’s pretty unlikely that your family will go through these logs on your home WiFi network. That means the gift you got while in incognito mode is likely to stay secret, although it’s technically possible for your spouse to see where you went to buy gifts via these logs.
Entities who own networks and your devices – such as your work or school – are likely to have other tools installed to help them track browsing history that occurs, even in incognito mode.
If you log into a website account while in incognito mode, that website will have access to some data about your activity while you’re logged in. For example, if you log in to Facebook, then Facebook will be able to collect some data about your activity on their platform, even if you’re in incognito mode. If you log into your Google account while you complete Google searches, then Google will have a record of that search tied to your account, whether you use incognito mode or not.
Cybercriminals are capable of seeing your search history, even in incognito mode, by intercepting your web activity. They can use cyber attacks such as man-in-the-middle attacks to intercept your traffic.
How to Protect Your Search History
Though incognito mode doesn’t protect your search history, there are a number of ways you can keep your browsing data private. Here are a few.
1. Password protect your search history
Some browsers, such as Chrome, allow you to protect your search history by requiring a password to view it. This would protect it from any threat actor who may gain access to your device. We recommend using a password that’s at least 16 characters and includes numbers, letters and special characters.
To help you generate strong passwords, you can use a password manager. A password manager makes it easy to develop hard-to-guess, unique passwords for every account. It will also store the passwords in a secure vault so you don’t have to remember them.
2. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A VPN encrypts your browsing data. Encryption essentially scrambles the data so no one without the encryption key – meaning no one other than you – can read the data. When your browsing data is routed through a VPN before going through your ISP, then your ISP won’t be able to see any of your browsing data, including your search history.
3. Don’t log in to accounts in incognito mode
You can hide your browsing data from third parties like Google if you stay logged out of your accounts while you use incognito mode. Then, Google will have a harder time connecting your searches to your profile. If you use a VPN too, your search history will be extra-secure.
4. Search with privacy-focused search engines
Privacy-focused search engines like DuckDuckGo don’t track your search history as Google does. They can be a bit better at hiding your search data from third-party entities, although your browsing data will still be logged by your ISP, unless you also use a VPN.
5. Browse on a privacy-focused browser
Privacy-focused web browsers collect less data than a browser like Chrome. Firefox, for example, allows you to turn off storage for previous search history.
Why Should I Protect My Search History?
We rely on web searches for some of our most personal questions. Most of us feel we have nothing to hide, but browsing data, including search history, can reveal a surprising amount about ourselves. For example, searches about medical conditions or doctors can provide information about your medical history, which is considered Personally Identifiable Information (PII).
Search history can be subpoenaed in a legal case and used as evidence of your actions and character. Cybercriminals who access this history could use it against you – for example, if they can see which bank you use, your bank accounts are easier to target.
Keep Private Online
Protecting your search history is an important part of keeping your data safe online. Keep anyone from knowing your personal information and intimate queries by following cybersecurity best practices.