How To Hide Internet History From A WiFi Hotspot Owner

The internet is an incredibly powerful tool. With just a few keystrokes, button presses, or swipes, you can gain information on just about any subject. Sometimes, however, you’re researching a sensitive subject that you don’t want other people to know about. You might be buying a gift for your wife, attempting to research your parents’ beliefs, or trying to look up strategies for your favorite game at work.

If you’re doing these things on a network owned by someone else, there’s a good chance that the network owner can snoop in and see what you’re doing. This applies to public WiFi, your WiFi at home, and even a wired connection that goes to someone else’s router. Here’s a quick rundown on some steps you can take to obfuscate your internet history when you’re on someone else’s network so that you can get your privacy back.

Hide History From WiFi Owner

WiFi Hotspots – Ubiquitous, But Risky

These days, WiFi hotspots are just about everywhere. As technology has grown, it’s been more and more beneficial for businesses to have an internet connection available for their own needs. At the same time, the massive adoption of WiFi-enabled mobile phones has left the public hungry for networks that they can use to save data while using their favorite apps.

Savvy business owners recognized the intersection of these two growth patterns and began to offer free public wifi to their customers. With a little bit of advertising (perhaps a sign on a window), these businesses enticed visitors to rest inside and browse the web, exposing them to the products and services offered within. These days, public WiFi is almost a given, with most businesses that have chairs offering a WiFi network for their guests.

These networks are not quite as free as they might seem. You might have noticed that many public WiFi hotspots will hit you with a terms of service page when you connect for the first time. This page will appear no matter what page you try to view with a web browser.

The network is able to recognize your device, figure out that you haven’t accepted the TOS, intercept any requests for outside information, and send you the terms of service page. Once you’ve accepted this TOS, the same system will be able to track all of your web activity, monitoring your network bandwidth usage, which pages you visit, and how long you stay.

Your Network Owner Can Do Whatever They Want

The ability to track internet activity is not limited to wifi hotspots. Instead, anyone with full access to a network can set up that network to do basically whatever they want. Computers can be programmed to do whatever you tell them to, and routers, modems and switches are just very simple computers.

With a bit of technical know-how, you could install firmware on a router that forwarded a copy of all network traffic to a printer and print a raw log of all of the 0s and 1s being broadcast through that router. You could also set up the router to block a specific website, log all activity related to a particular user, or even add, modify, or delete information as it’s being sent through the router. These tasks can get very tricky, but they’re all things that can be done by an expert with high-level access to a network.

Most network owners aren’t experts. Luckily, they don’t need to be. Many companies offer software that can track network traffic to varying degrees. This software ranges from basic firewalls that block certain categories of websites to intrusive packages that carefully monitor the web traffic of each individual user. When you see a terms of service page after connecting to a WiFi hotspot, that page is likely being generated and delivered by one of these software packages.

In a lot of cases, network owners are mostly using this type of software to ensure that one user doesn’t hog all of the bandwidth, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll never take a look at what individual users are doing or how often they come back to visit. This means that the owner of your local coffee shop doesn’t have to be a tech wizard to see your full search history.

Public WiFi Router

How To Hide Your Internet Search History From A WiFi Hotspot Owner

It’s tempting to think of internet traffic like a pizza delivery. You put your packets in a car, tell the car where to go, and it drives straight there. In reality, that’s not quite how it works. Instead of traveling in a private car for the whole journey, your network traffic is routed along a series of hops.

At each hop, the receiving device reads the whole message and then repeats it to another device, keeping the chain going until your information reaches its final stop. At a minimum, each packet is sent through your router, your modem, your ISP , and then the final destination. Usually, there are several more relays in between these last two hops.

This means that any private information sent over the internet is exposed to several other devices. If your network’s router or modem are in control of someone else, they can install software that monitors, records, or modifies network traffic, as mentioned above.

Your ISP also has the ability to view very detailed information about your internet usage history, although they rarely do so unless asked by the authorities. If a would-be attacker can gain control over the devices at any of the additional hops along the way, they can similarly make a record of your internet traffic and potentially modify the information that crosses their hop.

It’s basically impossible to disguise where your internet traffic is going. No matter what you do, the address must always be readable by the device at each hop so your traffic can continue on to its final destination. You can, however, encrypt the rest of the information.

Depending on the type of encryption you use and the amount of information you send, it can be virtually impossible to decipher encrypted internet traffic unless the reader has the key. Many sites and apps use encryption by default (when people talk about SSL or TLS they’re referring to internet encryption technologies), so it’s likely that you’re already taking advantage of encryption for your web activities.

While encryption on its own won’t hide your internet history from the network owner, it’s a core step in any process that successfully masks your browsing activity and keeps your internet traffic secure. A WiFi owner can see what sites you visit, but not what is on these sites because of HTTPS (SSL / TLS).

Also be on the lookout for SSL warnings as shown in the picture below. These could be the sign of a man in the middle attack. They could also just be signs of an improperly set up captive portal by the public hotspot owner.

SSL Warning Public WiFi

Proxies

You can’t hide the address that your computer is connected to. You can, however, connect to somewhere sneaky. A proxy is a service that essentially browses the web for you. When you use a proxy, you send all of your traffic to the proxy, which then sends it out to the rest of the web. When you combine this service with encryption, your network owner only knows that you’re connected to a proxy. They can’t see what you’re using that proxy for.

The big downside of using a proxy is that you’re essentially just deferring your privacy. While your network owner and ISP can’t see exactly what you’re doing, the proxy that you’re using knows exactly what you’re telling it to connect to.

That means that an unscrupulous proxy operator might very well log your ISP and keep a full record of your browsing history. A free public proxy might enable you to bypass a badly implemented firewall or search for a banned term, but it’s not a great long-term solution if you’re legitimately concerned about your privacy.

The other downside of using a proxy is that your network knows that it’s connected to a proxy. If the network owner tries to snoop on you and finds out that you’ve been doing all of your browsing under the shield of a service that protects your privacy, they might wonder why.

This can lead to very awkward conversations with parents, bosses, IT professionals, or WiFi hotspot owners. If you’re doing something mildly embarrassing but not something against the rules, it might be a better idea to just do it out in the open rather than get accused of searching for something illegal, immoral, or otherwise against the rules.

VPNs

A VPN is essentially the grown-up version of a proxy. While a simple proxy usually hides your internet traffic through a web browser or a single app, a VPN can be used to disguise the entirety of your internet activity. This means that things like system updates and gaming apps will use the VPN for their traffic, making you much, much more secure.

Modern VPN services pride themselves on being fast, reliable, and secure. In some cases, using a VPN will actually give you better internet speeds for activities like gaming, watching certain streaming services, or downloading files in specific ways.

VPNs share the same downsides as proxies above. Just like with simple proxies, your VPN can still view your full internet activity.

If you do something that skirts the edges of the law, VPN providers could be subpoenaed by law enforcement agencies, forcing them to turn over any information that they have on you. This means that you’re still not 100% anonymous, even with a VPN.

Because VPNs encrypt all of your traffic and have some upsides, it’s usually easier to explain a VPN to a network owner than a proxy. If you’re questioned about VPN use, you can simply say that you get better ping to League of Legends with a VPN, that you’re watching a Netflix show not available in your country, or that you need to use a VPN for work and you forgot to turn it off.

Remember that your network administrator can still tell how much traffic you’re sending and receiving over the network and adjust your excuse to match the realities of your situation. If you’re downloading the entirety of Wikipedia over a VPN, your network administrator probably won’t believe that you’re using a VPN to play Words with Friends with your Chinese family members.

If you want to try a VPN I highly recommend you look at ExpressVPN and Surfshark VPN. They both offer risk free money back guarantees and excellent performance. ExpressVPN is a little faster and Surfshark is slightly less expensive. You really can’t go wrong with either.

  1. ExpressVPN – Our top choice when you simply want the best VPN that money can buy.
  2. NordVPN – Our top pick for the budget conscious buyer who still wants enhanced privacy.

Onion Routing

A handful of services and apps offer a solution known as “onion routing” that offers some advantages over a simple proxy or VPN.

Onion routing involves sending your internet information through multiple hops. Onion routing is very similar to using multiple proxies or VPNs in sequence, adding a great deal of additional security to your traffic.

At each step, your information only knows that it’s being sent between two proxies. The final destination and place of origin are both encrypted, meaning that it’s difficult to figure out who sent it, what it’s about, or where it’s going.

Onion routing has several downsides. The additional steps involved with onion routing make it much slower than a single proxy or VPN. Regular websites will load noticeably slower, while things like gaming, downloading, or watching high-definition videos are very difficult.

Additionally, many onion routing solutions are complicated or expensive. Finally, for most people, onion routing doesn’t offer that much more security than a regular VPN. Most of us aren’t spies or top-level diplomats handling classified information, so it’s not really a big deal that a VPN might get hacked or subpoenaed. This means that while onion routing is a possibility, it’s not a thing you should prioritize unless you understand the tradeoffs.

Using Your Home Network As A VPN

If you’ve got the technical know-how, it’s not too difficult to use your home computer as a way to get some anonymity on networks you don’t own. Leaving a device running in your house can enable you to route internet traffic through it, allowing you to use your own network as a VPN.

There are a bunch of ways to do this, with the simplest probably being to use remote desktop software to browse the web through your computer at home.

You can also install software on a machine on your home network that gives it full VPN functionality, letting you utilize your home network for all of your internet needs wherever you are. Setting this up can be a bit involved, but it can be a fun way to get more use out of an old computer or phone. Another option is to purchase a router with built in VPN server functionality. The Ubiquiti band of routers are an excellent option if you want to get a router with VPN server functionality. This is what I personally do. Whenever I travel I router all of my internet traffic through my home network.

You can take this idea one step further and purchase cloud computing power to provide yourself with a private VPN. Installing a program like Streisand or Algo VPN to the cloud platform of your choice will enable you to act as your own VPN provider.

Your cloud provider will still know all of the things that your VPN provider would know, but they’ll likely handle that data somewhat differently. Depending on how much you use your VPN and what you use it for, you might be able to get a free year of service with Amazon EC2, enabling you to experiment and get your feet wet without paying for anything at all.

Ethernet Switch

Get Internet A Different Way

Even if you use a VPN or a proxy, the person who owns the wireless network will still be able to see that you’re using the network and sending data traffic. If you want to be totally invisiable, the best way to do that is to connect to a different network entirely.

Try using your phone as a source of internet. In addition to browsing directly on your phone, you can also set up your phone to broadcast a small WiFi hotspot that you can utilize with your other devices. This can allow you to relax at work and visit banned sites, play games after hours when your parents are asleep, or visit sites that are normally blocked by a network firewall.

You’ll have to pay for any data you use, of course, and your phone company will have a full record of what you do on the internet.

Smartphone Hotspot

In general, using your phone to provide an internet connection is the simplest and easiest way to ensure that the owner of a WiFi hotspot doesn’t know what you’re doing. As long as you get cell service, nobody around you will have any idea what you’re doing online.

They may, however, see your hotspot when they attempt to connect to other networks. Make sure you rename your hotspot to something that doesn’t identify you and set a strong password to prevent other people from using your data. As long as you follow these basic precautions, you’ll be able to skirt company IT policies with ease.

Conclusion

Using public WiFi is probably not the best idea if you care about your privacy. If you really feel the need to use public WiFi consider not doing anything that you would be concerned if someone found out about. A VPN is a great additional layer of security when using public Wi-Fi networks.

If you have a smartphone plan which includes some mobile hotspot data, consider using that in place of public WiFi as it is a much safer option. It is also likely much faster.