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It's actually difficult to maintain privacy on a shared computer. Google's web history is one reason, but your browser's history is another.

I share a computer with my roommate. Lets say she creates a Google account, downloads the tool bar, etc. in order to save and view web history, but I do not create an account. When she logs in to view and use the web history feature, won't she able to see what pages I visit since we share the same computer?

There are a couple of different scenarios that could be at play here, since there are at least two different histories that could be kept.

But regardless of which, sharing a computer with a roommate or with anyone for that matter definitely puts you at risk for accidentally sharing more than just the computer.

If you're signed into a Google account such as GMail or just about any Google service and you remain logged into that account, then by default Google will keep a history of where you've been on the web.

Visit http://www.google.com/history. Login with your Google account if you need to, and you should see a history of sites you've visited:

Google Web History Example

If you see a long detailed history, then this feature is enabled for your account and actively recording your browsing history while you're logged in to a Google account and surfing the web.

There are two quick approaches to avoiding this data collection:

  • Sign out:

    Sign Out option on a Google page

    In other words, make sure that once you're done doing whatever required you to sign in to your Google account, you sign out when your done. Once you sign out Google no longer associates your browsing activity with your Google account.

  • Pause:

    Pause option for Google web history

    "If you're signed into a Google account ... then by default Google will keep a history of where you've been on the web."

    Google allows you to simply turn off the history recording feature by hitting Pause. In fact I inadvertently did this some months ago, and sure enough, Google's ignored my browsing history the entire time, until I turned it back on again while writing this article.

To learn more about Google's web history, just sign in to http://www.google.com/history and hit the Web History Help link at the bottom of the page.

So all of that was really targeted at your roommate, because she is the one that has the Google account.

The risk for both of you is simply this: that history is collected and visible if it's enabled (and it is by default), and your roommate remains signed into their Google account. That means:

  • You could view your roommates browsing history.

  • Your roommate could be viewing yours.

It's easy for you to protect yourself: visit any Google property that requires a sign in, and if your roommate is already signed in, then sign out.

It's not quite so easy for your roommate. If she inadvertently remains signed in when you are using the computer then there's not much she can do to prevent you from snooping around.

Now, even without Google's involvement, there's other history involved: your browser's history. I've covered this in several previous articles, but your web browser is also keeping a history of where you've been. Type CTRL+H when you're in your browser and you'll see the history it has.

And it's always on.

So if you are concerned about your privacy, you'll want to make sure that when you're done using the shared computer you erase your history. See the links below for instructions.

The bottom line is that when you share a computer you really want to trust the person your sharing it with. If not, you need to take extra precautions to make sure that your privacy remains secure.

Article C3095 - July 24, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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3 Comments
Boo
July 24, 2007 11:04 PM

I have gone to the www.google.com/history and found that if I don't install Google Toolbar, my web history will not be collected by Google. It asked me to install the toolbar first.

Eli Coten
July 28, 2007 3:08 PM

Some browsers have options to delete or even, (like Safari) not record this history in the first place.

I believe if you set the browser to keep history for 0 days, it is deleted when you close the browser. With Safari you can enable a "private browsing" option. With Firefox, pressing CTRL + SHIFT + DELETE (or on the Tools menu, click Clear Private Data) allows you to delete this information as well. Doesn't affect the Google history though.

john oatridge
September 4, 2009 7:12 AM

Ok, still not entirely clear about this.

Say, I haven't signed into my google accout, but I review the google web history (on my own pc) is that my actual history of all sites / pages visited, or, some random list?

Are they actually the pages I've looked at, or, what google has found during a search - how do I tell the difference?

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