Can You Ever Really, Truly Delete Your Browser Search History?
It’s one of those technical questions that you may wonder about. Maybe you’ve been searching for something embarrassing in your internet browser, like a medical question or content that isn’t G-rated, and you’d prefer that your friends, family or boss not later stumble on whatever that is.
So, can you ever really, truly delete your browser’s search history for good?
The answer — as is often the case with these kinds of situations — is complicated.
First, here’s the easy way to delete your browser’s search history.
If you want to delete your browser’s history, you would generally do this:
On a Windows PC, press Ctrl+Shift+Delete, and then you’ll be given a choice to “Cancel” or “Clear data.”
If you have a Mac, you’ll want to follow your individual browser’s instructions. But typically, it involves going to your browser’s drop-down menu, choosing the History setting and then clearing the data.
If you have an iPhone, go to Settings and then tap the Safari option, followed by “Clear History and Website Data.”
If you have an Android, select Settings in your browser, and then choose the Privacy and Security option. Tap “Clear browsing data.”
But still, your browsing history may not be gone for good. If your life has turned really dark, and a police department’s forensic team is searching through your computer or phone, they’ll probably turn something up anyway. (Hopefully — no offense.)
All right, now for the fun stuff: Can you ever really, truly delete your browser’s search history for good?
The short answer is no, not really. Well, you can, but there is a good chance that your search history isn’t truly gone for good.
Right. Well, you can delete your browser’s history, but traces of what you were searching for are probably just lurking somewhere else.
On your computer or device, “you can really, truly delete your web browser’s search history files,” said Eric Santanen, an associate professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania who studies online privacy.
The problem, though, is that you’ve probably already visited other websites or search engines. So just because you’ve made your own browser look above reproach, that doesn’t mean your search queries aren’t still available elsewhere, Santanen said.
“For example, if you are logged into a Google account and perform a web search, Google will retain a list of all searches you have performed,” he said. “Other search engines tend to retain similar sets of data for analysis and sale to other organizations.”
Santanen added that DuckDuckGo is a notable exception. “Their business model does not include hoarding, analyzing or selling your search history,” he said.
So if somebody had a really good reason to see what you’ve been searching for, “it is available through court orders” to most search engines, Santanen said. “And the user will never know that these requests have been made or that they have been fulfilled, due to various nondisclosure agreements that are forced upon the search provider by the court systems,” he added.
A person can control their own computer, but we cannot control computers that we do not own.Eric Santanen, an online privacy expert
OK, well, fortunately, I don’t think anybody will be that interested in my browsing history. If I want to really, truly delete my web browser’s search history from my computer or device, how do I do it?
You probably don’t. You will likely need to hire a computer technician instead.
“You can remove the files that contain your browser’s search history from your computer, but it requires specific knowledge, takes significant effort, and the results obtained will depend on the specific combination of hardware and software you are using,” Santanen said — such as a desktop, a tablet or a phone, as well as your particular operating system and web browser.
“As web browser software becomes more sophisticated over time, the steps required to protect your privacy by attempting to clean up after yourself become increasingly complex,” he added.
How complex, exactly? Let’s just say that one hypothetical afternoon I was typing, “Why is my boss a moron?” in the search engine on my work computer. How can I clear the browser? Is it really that hard?
It may be daunting.
Santanen offered up the example of somebody using a Windows operating system. “Specific protocols and data structures will vary across devices, but the basics remain fairly similar,” he said.
There is a lot of local data stored on your computer or device, Santanen said, such as:
Search term history. “Many browsers automatically record and store the search terms that you use.”
Cookie files. “As you browse the web, various websites install cookie files on your computer that remember certain websites that you’ve visited and some of what you did while there.”
Browsing history. “Your browser keeps a list of individual pages you’ve visited.”
Downloaded files. “Various files downloaded from websites will be stored on your computer.”
Remembered passwords. “This stored data is also website-specific.”
Cache files. “These are copies of webpages that you’ve visited that are stored on your computer as well.”
Autocompleted text fields. “The most common example of this is name and address fields that exist in webpages.”
So if you really want to erase everything you’ve browsed, “all of the above must be cleared,” Santanen said.
After I delete everything, it all goes into the operating system’s trash, right? And then I delete it from there. Isn’t it gone for good then?
Not really. Santanen said that over time, especially if you’ve added new software to your computer, you may find that the deleted files have been written over and truly are gone forever. But some programs can find long-deleted files, which may be useful for anyone who hasn’t stored their files online and is desperately trying to recover something important.
If you use Windows and really want to make sure your files are gone, you can use the optimize and defragment tool that is built into your computer.
“This tool will physically reorganize and regroup all of the files on the drive into a specific area, and then wipe clean by writing blank data to all of the remaining free space,” Santanen explained, adding that this can take several hours to complete for large drives.
Another method “operates at the individual file level and requires special third-party data-wiping software,” he said. “With this software, you can specify a specific file as a target and it will write random data to the physical location on the hard drive, overwriting the data from your original file,” Santanen added.
“If you really want to delete your history, you can use privacy software that will overwrite the information found in your history files with random characters, so that even if the files are restored, they are unreadable,” said Steve Weisman, a senior lecturer of law and taxation at Bentley University in Massachusetts who runs the website Scamicide.com.
These types of software programs often come with a monthly or yearly subscription, but some are free, too. BitRaser File Eraser, Eraser, File Shredder, Hardwipe, Blancco File Eraser and Disk Wipe are among the many privacy programs — often called “file eraser software” — that can fully scrub the files inside your computer so that your browser history and plenty else disappear.
OK, good. So once I’ve done that, the browser history is dead?
“Before the marriage of web browsers and cloud storage, securely wiping a hard drive or performing a factory reset would suffice to ensure your browser’s history is deleted,” said Stephen Boyce, a cybersecurity executive at the Canada-based company Magnet Forensics, which provides organizations with tools to investigate cyberattacks and digital crimes.
But now, it’s another story.
“Today, many users sign into the web browser of choice, which means their browser history exists not only on the device used to access a website but potentially other devices that are synchronized with that device, as well as the cloud,” Boyce said.
Of course, the cloud. Curses. Well, what a mess. Any other tips for keeping a low profile?
A few, although this is about to go a little off-topic from clearing your browser history. But many people do end up putting information on the internet that they may not want out there, said Dimitri Shelest, the CEO of the Virginia-based company OneRep, which specializes in removing people’s information from data brokers across the internet.
So if you don’t want just anybody knowing where you live, for instance — maybe you have a stalker ex-boyfriend out there — this type of service might help.
If you’re really worried about your information being online and your situation is extreme, Shelest said, you could do a few things.
First, you might want to leave social media. “If you want to go completely dark, taking down social media is essential,” he said. “Back up your data if necessary, and then go through every account you can think of and deactivate them one by one.”
You could also scrub any forum discussions and comments. “Think back to message boards, forums and similar websites, such as Reddit,” Shelest said. “Have you left comments or created posts? Locate your account, delete all comments and posts, and then delete your account.”
Finally, you can talk to Google. “While there’s no guarantee that this will always work, you can request certain website content to be removed from Google,” Shelest said. “In situations where site owners aren’t willing to take down this sensitive content, taking it straight to Google can help.”
So what’s the bottom line? Can browser search history be completely deleted for good?
Absolutely — on your own computer or device. And if that’s all you’re worried about, you can do something about it. But if you are nervous about certain bits of information being out there for others to someday possibly see, you probably have good reason to be anxious.
“A person can control their own computer, but we cannot control computers that we do not own,” Santanen said.