How to disguise your personal web-surfing at work

Take a break but keep your job.
Laptop desk
Keep a lid on what you're looking at on the web. Luca Bravo via Unsplash

Before 5 P.M. hits, you just have to do some online shopping, or check your favorite site for updates, or take a break from that mind-numbingly boring assignment. Whatever the reason, you want to browse the web at the office…without the boss finding out about your frivolous behavior. And with a few tech tricks, you can get away with it.

Right from the outset, just know that there’s no surefire way to avoid notice. If your employer owns the computer you’re using and the network you’re connecting to, you have no real guarantee of hiding your online activities.

That said, if you’re on fairly good terms with upper management and only want to bend the rules a little—checking social media rather than hacking into government infrastructure, for example—here are a few pointers for hiding your non-work-related browsing (as much as possible).

Fire up incognito mode

Chrome incognito
Switch to incognito mode to avoid leaving a trail. David Nield

If you’re busy doing something other than work online, you don’t want to leave traces of your activity behind. Private or incognito mode can help. With this setting, when you close your private window, the browser will automatically wipe the details of the pages you’ve visited, as well as any temporary data they’ve logged. This works great if you know someone else shares your work computer or frequently checks its history, because in that case, they won’t be able to see what you’ve been doing online.

That said, private browsing has its limitations. If you’re accessing the internet through the office network, and your employer’s IT staff are paying attention, they can see what you’re up to even when incognito mode is active. It’s only after the fact that this mode hides your history.

Every major modern browser offers the option to open these private windows. In Chrome, click the menu button (three dots) on the top right and select New incognito window. In Firefox, open the menu (three horizontal lines) on the top right and choose New Private Window. In Microsoft Edge, click the menu button (three dots) on the top right, followed by New InPrivate window. Finally, in Safari, choose File > New Private Window.

Know your shortcuts

Windows keyboard
Learn keyboard shortcuts to quickly hide windows. via Unsplash

Does your boss have the annoying habit of wandering around desks and looming up behind you unannounced? You don’t want them to catch you in the middle of booking flights for your next vacation. So learn a few keyboard shortcuts you can quickly deploy to hide your activity when someone approaches. Then you can bring the browser window back up when the coast is clear.

On Windows, Ctrl+W will close the current tab in a flash, no matter which browser you’re using (Chrome, Firefox, or Edge), but you will lose whatever was in the window at the time. Another option would be to minimize all the currently-open windows with Win+D. This leaves a blank desktop, which might be non-incriminating, but does make it look like you’re not doing any work. We recommend a quick Alt+Tab combination, which will switch you into a different app (usually the one you were using before you opened the browser). Just make sure the app you’re switching to is a work-appropriate one.

If you’re using a Mac computer, you have a similar set of options, but they rely on different keyboard combinations. Any macOS browser (Chrome, Firefox, or Safari) lets you close the current tab with the Cmd+W shortcut. To minimize all open windows, you need to hit Cmd+F3. Finally, to quickly switch between apps, the shortcut is Cmd+Tab.

Disguise that website

Reddit in Outlook
Is this Microsoft Outlook or Reddit? David Nield

Plenty of us struggle with staying focused at the office. To help out, quite a few websites and online games offer disguises that make them look more serious and work-related than they actually are.

For instance, if you want to go scrolling through the front page of the internet, then check out MSOutlookit. This portal reskins Reddit to make it look like an email client. You can customize the experience to view your favorite subreddits—just follow the instructions on the page.

Not every site has a specific page just for viewing it at work. But some extensions offer a similar service, modifying the look of any website to make it seem less interesting. For example, Decreased Productivity (for Chrome) removes the images and bright colors from any website you choose, making its appearance more muted.

Other options let you subtly play games. For example, remember when Google had a Pac-Man game as its doodle? You can still play it, and if someone spots you, just say you were trying to run a normal web search and hit the wrong button. For a game that looks innocuous, check out the text-based CivClicker. Like Civilization, this lets you build an imaginary empire, and it comes with a work-safe mode that keeps graphics down to a minimum. We also like Universal Paperclips, a click-based game that looks dull but is deceptively addictive.

Think outside the box

Learning how to quickly close windows and disguise your favorite websites will hide a lot of your browsing behavior. But you can also take steps to physically conceal your screen.

For example, a computer screen protector, which costs about $48 on Amazon will make your machine look blank to anyone who’s not directly in front of it, which makes it much harder for passing colleagues to see what you’re up to. However, someone standing immediately behind you will have a clear view of your activity. Plus, this tool is noticeable, so you may have to justify its use—maybe convince your boss that your work requires absolute privacy (which is probably easier if you work in an accounts department).

Alternatively, you can choose a good-size office plant and carefully position it to block coworkers’ views of your screen. Just explain that it’s good for the office zen.

Rely on your phone

Android Wi-Fi hotspot
You can set up Wi-Fi hotspots from your phone. David Nield

If you’ve taken all of these measures, and you’re still worried about IT spying on your online behavior, you might need to turn to your phone. Of course, you could just do all of your frivolous browsing on your handset, but then your coworkers will see you and know you’re slacking off.

Instead, if you have a good data plan and a strong 4G LTE signal, turn your Android or iOS device into a Wi-Fi hotspot and then connect your computer to that source. Because you won’t be on your office’s internet connection, your boss won’t be able to monitor the sites that you visit.