Why Clearing Your History Doesn’t Clear Everything
Who do you think knows you better: your mom or your internet browser?
Together with Google and social networks, your web browser can tell a lot about you, your tastes and behaviours: who else knows about the shoes you added to the cart but changed your mind about and never purchased, the online store where you last ordered cupcakes for your friend’s birthday party or how you secretly do love listening to Billie Eilish.
Of course, it’s nice to receive news and see ads based on your interests.
But this gaze of the ever-watching Big Brother can make many of us feel uneasy. Is it possible to get rid of the constant tracking by using the incognito mode or clearing your Google account history?
Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds. When you delete all searches, there’s still information that remains saved. Let’s shed some light on the data you share with websites and the ways you can clear your online activity away.
The information saved by your browser
When you open your browser and start typing, it will instantly know what you want to find, be it a specific website URL or cute kitten video. Why does this happen?
Google Chrome, Safari and most other browsers keep track of your searches and the websites you visit. This is to help you quickly return to the pages you find interesting. Usually, it is quite convenient and only just a tiny bit creepy.
If you want to view your search history and other things your browser has saved, press Ctrl+Shift+Delete or go to Settings and select Clearing Browsing Data. You will see that your browser keeps track of your:
- browsing history
- download history
- cookies and other site data
- cached images and files
- passwords and other sign-in data
- autofill form data
- site settings
That’s quite a lot of information. Does clearing your web browsing history delete everything? Apparently not. It only erases the list of the websites and pages you visited. There are still bits of data that remain untouched when you click “Delete my activity.”
This is just the list of files you’ve downloaded, not the files themselves. It’s there to help you open files quickly if you can’t find them on your computer or download the same file again.
These delicious bits of text give websites information about your site preferences, keep you logged in and help ensure your shopping cart is full, even if you’ve accidentally closed the tab.
However, cookies are not as simple (or harmless) as they may initially seem. There are also third-party cookies that track your behavior across multiple websites to show you personalized ads. They are often placed in the ads you see on a website rather than the website’s code itself.
All in all, third-party cookies are the ones to blame for showing you things you were previously interested in on almost every website or app you open.
Cached images and files
Your cache contains local copies of images and other elements that make the page loading process quicker. So, every time you open a web page you’ve already visited, your browser draws site images from the cache instead of downloading them again. By the way, clearing cache can speed up your device since it frees space on it.
Passwords and other sign-in data
Many browsers have a built-in password manager. You’ve probably seen that whenever you log in to a new website, your browser asks you if it should save your credentials in an internal database for later use. If you agree, the browser will fill a login form with your credentials automatically next time you visit the website. The same goes for autofill form data.
These include the permissions you give websites, like showing or stopping pop-ups, allowing use of a camera and/or microphone and more.
Apart from that, there still may be some browser-specific peculiarities, such as clearing hosted app data in the Google Chrome browser. This refers to data from the apps you've added from the Chrome Web Store.
Okay, so you’ve deleted your browser history. And now you need to find something in the history you’ve deleted … Classic mistake.
How to check browsing history after it’s been deleted? If you’re using Google Chrome and you were signed in to your Google account before erasing your history, simply go to google.com/history and check what you’ve been browsing and when. This is the place where your browsing results remain untouched, even if you clear your browsing history.
What you share with Facebook and Google
Clearing your browsing history doesn’t remove all traces of your online activity. If you have a Google account, it collects information not only on your searches and websites you visit but also on the videos you watch and even places you go.
Google claims this information is gathered to provide you with a highly personalized experience. Terrific or terrifying — you decide.
If you want to get rid of this constant tracking, you can:
- Click on your Google Account avatar in the upper-right corner of Google Chrome.
- Click on the Manage your Google Account button.
- On the left, click on Data & Personalization.
- Manage your activity under the Activity Controls tab.
If you think you can leave no trace by using the incognito mode, you should know there is one catch. If you log in to a website like Amazon, Facebook or any other using incognito, those websites will record your browsing activity. So, later you may reap the fruits of your private browsing via the ads your browser will show you.
But there is one smart guy who knows everything you browse even despite using the incognito mode or clearing your browsing history - your Internet Service Provider (ISP). It may use the information gained for government purposes (e.g. in the European Union, there are some categories of data your ISP must retain based on the Directive 2006/24/EC of 15 March 2006) or simply compile anonymous browsing logs and sell them to marketing companies.
So, no matter what you do on the internet, your ISP knows it. Unless you use a reliable VPN (Virtual Private Network).
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Clearing your browsing history isn’t enough to wipe away all traces of your online activity. Even using the incognito mode has its downsides. But that doesn’t mean you should be concerned about every click you make on the web. Just steer clear of shady websites and never give your credentials (aka login and password) through unprotected channels.
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