Generally speaking, yes, a VPN does hide your browsing history if you’re a private user, not perfectly if you don’t have physical control over every piece of your local networking gear, and of course not if you’re an enterprise user employed by anything larger than a mom-and-pop grocery store.
You see, being keen on protecting your online browsing history would have had you labeled as paranoid once upon a time. In this day and age, however, that tendency is more broadly seen as a trait of responsible internet users. Thanks, conglomerate-built spying apparatuses devised to devour every last tidbit of our personal data for profit, I guess?
Most people who reach that realization will eventually find themselves reading about a potential way of quelling their online fears – virtual private networks. That’s why you’re presumably reading these lines, as well.
Therefore, let’s take an in-depth look at what a VPN does and does not do because knowledge is power… and power is something we often feel stripped of when looking at how the big tech has been pillaging our sensitive information over the last couple of decades with not a care in the world.
VPNs vs. data-hungry ISPs & websites
If you’re concerned about your internet provider going through your online data, you can rest assured that a reliable VPN will prevent it from doing so.
VPNs hide your browsing traffic by acting as a persistent extra step in the process of communicating with the World Wide Web. They encrypt all of your requests and only decrypt them for recipients (i.e. servers) they were intended for.
In other words, it’s not that using a VPN prevents ISPs from collecting any data about your internet usage but that it stops them from gathering anything remotely useful. By going through a VPN, the only browsing history your home ISP will be able to collect — besides the name of your VPN provider — will be in the form of scrambled, entirely useless data packets.
Even in an extremely unlikely scenario wherein your VPN uses the same ISP as you, your browsing history is still anonymized seeing how you’re far from the only client connecting to that VPN’s server and your relayed requests still have a fake IP address attached to them.
Likewise, your anonymity is also protected on the receiving end of requests seeing how any websites you visit through a VPN don’t have your real IP address but that of your VPN provider’s server.
VPNs vs. The IT Crowd
The bad news is that VPNs won’t necessarily be of much help if you don’t want your employer to know you’re looking at dank memes during office hours instead of being a productive member of society.
Whenever you’re using a company-issued device, you can’t be certain a VPN will be enough to hide your data from your employer. In fact, anyone working at a firm with a triple-digit device fleet should pretty much assume the IT department installed all sorts of spyware on their laptops, desktops, and smartphones precisely for the purpose of logging their usage. A VPN can’t do much if your data gets snatched before it even leaves your device.
But what about running a VPN on your own handset or laptop while connected to a third-party access point? If hiding your online activity is your only concern, that would work in most real-life scenarios – for a little bit.
The thing is, even if their contents can’t be deciphered, large volumes of encrypted data would trigger a bunch of automated red flags at any company with an IT department worth half their weight in salt.
Assuming the main reason you’re using a VPN in the first place is to avoid drawing attention to yourself, you’re probably better off just waiting until you get home to hit up those hot singles in your area.
As for hiding your browsing history from owners of Wi-Fi hotspots, VPNs are worthy of that task. In theory, third parties could devise the domains you’re visiting via their access points but even that’s a mighty long shot.
You vs. VPNs
Naturally, none of this matters if you aren’t extremely careful with your choice of VPN. End up picking wrong and the very barrier between your anonymity and data-hungry corporations, intelligence agencies, and other malicious entities will sell you out to whomever comes knocking.
That’s because VPNs can generally see all of your online traffic by design. After all, they’re the ones doing all the anonymizing of your data packets, so if you care about protecting your privacy on the internet, make sure to go with a trustworthy one.
“Does a VPN Hide Your Browsing History?” was written by Dominik Bosnjak, a long-time VPN-user-turned-advocate who spends more time scrutinizing VPN Providers on a daily basis than he’d like to admit. When he isn’t writing VPN Guides and covering general Tech News, he’s probably spending time with his dog, video games, or both. Fun fact: the Shih Tzu in question is the only remaining creature in Dominik’s life who hasn’t told him they’re sick of him talking about Best VPN practices and government-sponsored erosion of digital privacy which made using the Internet less convenient over the years. He occasionally dabbles in video editing, Wall Street memes, and demonstrating a remarkable lack of guitar-playing ability.
If you want more tidbit-sized rants about any of those things, you can find him on Twitter @dddominikk.