Internet usage on a computer is recorded in multiple locations. Primarily, your searches, website information, cookies, and even site-specific content is stored on your computer. Activity across a network is monitored and recorded through the network hub or server. The settings for such are maintained by the network administrator. Access through a third-party provider or Internet service provider (ISP) is monitored and recorded by the provider. Privacy laws prohibit third-parties from using or monitoring specific individual's activity without legal grounds however, such activities as Internet searches, frequently browsed sites, and related information can be maintained by a third party without personal information. For example, search engines like Google and Yahoo will track search terms to identify popular searches in an effort to refine the search engine process but they will not track the IP address of the person doing the search. Your computer will maintain such information to make your specific program return search results faster.
Internet Usage on a Network
There are two types of wireless networks: secured and unsecured. A secured network means you have to have permission to access the network. Most companies operate an intranet (internal to the company only) that is secured with passwords and firewalls however these are typically hard-line networks (cables and direct connections). Most Wi-Fi hotspots operate on unsecured networks allowing anyone with a Wi-Fi capable device to use the network. All usage on secured and unsecured networks can be monitored and recorded. If a website is accessed, it is accessed through the network connection allowing the network hub, router, or server access to the information. Depending upon the settings of the computer being used, information on the computer itself can also be accessed by network administrators including saved files, histories, and related content. Virus protection software and computer specific settings can be modified to allow limited to no access to computer specific information protecting your documents and files from intrusion however, accessing the Internet allows the server or administrator to monitor and record your Internet activity.
Protecting Your Information
If you are connecting your computer to an unsecured network, you need to have solid virus and spyware software loaded and active on your computer. You also want to update your operating system settings to prohibit external access. Avoid sending personal or protected information over the Internet when connected to an unsecured network otherwise that information can be viewed and monitored. Whenever and wherever possible, your preference should be to connect only to a secured network. A secured network can still be monitored but only by those with authorized access and administrator level access.
Protecting Your Histories
If you want to further protect yourself from spying or intrusion, modify your browser settings accordingly. Do not use the "save password" options or form fill as this information can be stored as a cookie on your computer. Set your browser to clear the history and cookies upon closing. This will slow down your Internet usage but prohibit your computer from maintaining an active history of websites accessed and limit the ability of other people from viewing personal information. When going online, if you are concerned about personal information getting stolen or someone monitoring your usage, the best rule of thumb is to limit your Internet usage.