Can someone see my Internet history if I use their Wi-Fi?

4 min
students using the same wifi network

Wi-Fi was a magnificent invention. Nowadays, it’s prevalent in any ‘civilized’ area. Almost any household has its own wireless network, as well as coffee shops, hotel lobbies, most workplaces, shops, malls, airports, etc. We’ve become very used to Wi-Fi being everywhere, and that’s why we don’t give it much thought. Still, there’s always been a debate regarding wireless safety and privacy. Can any Wi-Fi be trusted, and to what extent? Can the Wi-Fi owner see what I search? 

A secure network protects access to itself

Historically, the first safeguarding of a computer was to lock it up, so nobody could gain access without a key to the room. This prevails in restricted areas in workplaces and devices that can’t be moved around easily. However, the network-connected computers need to be protected by cybersecurity. An efficient solution both facilitates authorized access and blocks hacking attempts. That’s what passwords are for, as well as PINs, fingerprint scanners, and facial recognition.

But what about the protection of data flowing through the channels and nodes of the Internet? The vast majority of them are operated by trustworthy entities like Internet Service Providers or countrywide operators. It’s not so easy for a hacker to impersonate a trusted server or otherwise tap into the network structures without being exposed. Still, there’s a whole range of methods used precisely for that. If you wish to learn more, look up man-in-the-middle attacks.

Ease of access is an advantage and a flaw of Wi-Fi

The situation is very different with wireless links. The downside of any wireless technology is that every signal can be easily snooped because nothing stops radio waves from propagating in all directions. That’s very useful to be able to move around your house without your tablet disconnecting. But it also means the signal containing your data transfer can be eavesdropped. So, can you see websites visited on your Wi-Fi by someone else?

Yes, monitoring a Wi-Fi devoid of any preventive measures would be trivial for an expert. A dangerous hacker could be innocently sipping coffee next door while heavily spying on unsuspecting users. So, back in the 1990s security algorithms were put forth, which resulted in password-protected Wi-Fi. As long as that safety isn’t cracked, the actual transfer in the air is undecipherable.

The first security standard was called WEP (Wire Equivalent Privacy). Back in 1997 it was highly recommended and is still supported by virtually every wireless device. But in just 4 years it has been publicly proven that it is dangerously flawed. It could be cracked in minutes by inspecting relatively small numbers of packets. With WEP, not only search history can be seen through Wi-Fi. All the safety is jeopardized! Luckily, there is a better alternative, called WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access). When in doubt, always use its newest version available (currently it’s WPA3).

Can the Wi-Fi owner see what I’m browsing and downloading?

Protection from nefarious users is one thing, but what about staying private from legitimate administrators of the network like your friends when you visit them? Router owners do have access to router logs which means they have access to your search history and can see which websites you visited and which files you downloaded should they decide so. You can trust they mean no harm and still wish they minded their own business instead of peeking over your shoulder.

What if I have a VPN on?

Any data guarded by a VPN gets encrypted on both ends, so you’re perfectly safe – the WiFi owner will not be able to snoop into your online history because the router will receive gibberish information it most likely won’t be able to decrypt.

Can Wi-Fi owner see what sites I visit on the phone?

Encryption of HTTPS is very prevalent nowadays, so you’re mostly safe while using someone’s Wi-Fi on mobile devices, just like on desktops. But it isn’t omnipresent. Computers use other protocols while disclosing varying degrees of private information. For example, DNS is used for IP address lookups. It can reveal the list of remote hosts you were being connected to. It’s not the exact URLs or forms you type your passwords in, but it gives a general idea of what were you doing.

Using a VPN service when using an untrusted Wi-Fi is a big asset. Its basic construct, the virtual tunnel, protects all your transfers throughout its span. That is all the way from your wireless device to the VPN server of your choice, far beyond that Wi-Fi. The VPN link keeps your privacy protected from any nearby hackers, the Wi-Fi owner, and the local ISP.

How to stop Wi-Fi owners from seeing your history

Assuming there’s always someone willing to spy on you sounds like a stretch, but it actually happens all the time in the online world. Luckily, mostly it’s for marketing, not any illicit purposes. If you wish to hide your browsing history from the local admin, using a VPN will do the trick without a doubt. If you want to be really sure, don’t settle for anything less.

But that’s just a small part of potential snooping at your online activity. Mitigating it isn’t easy, but there are simple habits you can learn to help yourself. Here’s a simple list:

  • Use trusted devices and trusted networks. Nothing’s better than your own device you know is free of malware and a network at least partially managed by yourself.
  • On untrusted devices, use incognito mode. When you really must use the Internet on a borrowed or a public computer, make sure to open an incognito window first. Close it immediately after you’re done to erase session data.
  • In untrusted networks, use a VPN. For privacy-sensitive persons, it might be a good idea to always use one. But when logging into a Wi-Fi where traffic from multiple devices can be intercepted, a VPN is one of the best insurances you can have.
  • Don’t accept cookies thoughtlessly. Websites ask to accept them all the time. Chances are, you’ve adopted a habit of consenting to all of them just to get rid of the annoying messages. But you don’t always need to do it. You can opt to accept just a minimal number of tracking cookies.
  • Adjust your browser. The vendors offer some settings that can limit the tracking. For example, in Google Chrome, you can block third-party cookies or clear the locally saved website data upon closing all windows.

Protecting your privacy is your right, also from the local Wi-Fi owners. There are a number of habits you can adopt to increase your overall online safety. If you wish to use an easy and effective approach, one of the best options is a VPN. Stay connected to a reliable remote server with a secure tunnel. It will hide your activity from the many potential dangers.

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