Sitting at home alone, surfing the internet, it's easy to forget how many organizations are watching what you do. Your internet service provider is recording every site you visit, Google is tracking your search history, advertising companies are tracking your browsing history, the government is tracking who knows what.
It isn't just companies. If you have a family or live with a roommate, they might be watching what you do, too. It isn't hard to pull up someone's browsing history.
And if you leave your computer unattended, a snoop can even grab your account passwords stored in your browser. Learn how to manage and lock down your stored browser passwords.
If the last three paragraphs weren't enough to make you think about giving up on the internet for good, then go back and read them again a bit more slowly. It is genuinely scary stuff.
However, you can protect yourself from some of this spying. There's actually a simple trick that makes browsing much safer.
Every major web browser - Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari and Opera - has private, or incognito, browsing. Turning this feature on means your browser will ignore cookies - including ad-tracking cookies - and won't record your browsing history. It's almost like you weren't online.
To fire up private browsing, just hit CTRL+SHIFT+P (CTRL+OPTION+P on Macs). This works in every browser except Chrome. In Chrome, the shortcut is CTRL+SHIFT+N (OPTION+SHIFT+N on Macs). You can also enable private browsing mode from your browser's main menu.
When your browser is in private browsing mode, it will show a special icon. If you don't see the mask in Firefox, the spy in Chrome or the "InPrivate" in IE and Edge, then you aren't secure.
Private browsing will keep your browsing safe from casual snoopers. Someone who jumps on your computer won't see where you've been.
A more dedicated snooper might be able to find out by looking at your browser cache. This can still keep images and code from sites you visit. A program like CCleaner can wipe this information for you.
Of course, your internet service provider still knows where you go, and the government can just request that information. There are a few ways around this. The easiest is with a web-based proxy like KProxy. Load any website in Kproxy's URL bar and the site routes your request through another computer.
Your ISP won't see what site you're really visiting, and the site you're visiting won't see your real IP address. The catch is that proxy sites can often load pages slowly.
Downloadable proxy servers can be a bit more reliable. Two popular ones are Tor and Privoxy. These not only re-route your traffic but encrypt it, too. TAILS is another helpful tool for browsing privacy, but it can be a little tough to set up.
I should note that while these tools obscure your web travels, don't think you can get away with any wrongdoing online. If you engage in illegal activity, rest assured that law enforcement can and will find out about it.