Some time back, the FCC approved new rules that were meant to favor online privacy. These new rules sought to limit how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) use and sell user data. The rules stated that customers have a right to control their own personal information.
Even though Congress voted to wipe away these landmark privacy protections, the fact that they were enacted in the first place is proof enough to tell you that your ISP IS spying on you.
Is Your ISP Spying on You?
The simple answer to this question is, YES! But perhaps not in the way you think.
They are not eavesdropping on your conversations or running surveillance teams on you around the clock. However, that does not mean they do not capture, keep, and possibly sell some of your sensitive data.
Every ISP has a set of its own privacy rules that seek to protect your sensitive data. For example, there is a good chance a marketing company could not walk into the head office of your ISP and ask for a spreadsheet with your information on it in exchange for money. But there are still some things they do that could be considered a breach of trust and confidentiality.
The most common way this happens is through marketing.
A particular company approaches an established company like Facebook, for example, and asks them to market their product towards a certain demographic. Once the deal is struck, Facebook uses the data they already have on their users to send the adverts to the specified demographic.
Therefore, this is typically how your browsing history data is sold – indirectly.
Doing so wouldn’t be possible if your ISP didn’t know which pages you visit or what you like watching on YouTube. Even though you can place firewall-like protection against cookies and other forms of tracking, your ISP still knows what you are doing when you log in.
What Can Your ISP Really See on Your Computer?
Unless someone hacks into your computer to steal things like your passwords and banking data, there is a limit to just how much information your ISP can gather on you. This is because you are protected by certain privacy laws.
Still, the thought of a third party secretly gathering information about your online habits before using these to place you in a certain demographic for marketing purposes is still very disturbing.
So what can your ISP really see?
Well, this depends on a couple of factors – the IP address that is automatically assigned to you by the ISP when you take up the service and the kind of information you readily share online.
Let’s say, for example, you are one of those extremely careful people who does not put any of their confidential information online (granted, this is very difficult to do nowadays). In this case, the most common data that your ISP will gather, based solely on your active IP address, includes:
- The URLs you visit online
- The pages you visit most frequently
- Your online/offline habits (when you typically log in and off)
- How much time you spend on certain web pages
Nevertheless, the situation gets worse when you willingly share your information online. If you are guilty of this (sadly, most of us are thanks to social media), then your ISP and even the websites you visit can have a lot more on you, including:
- Your specific current location (if location services are turned on)
- Your personal relationships
- Your phone numbers
- Your email
- Your social media data
These are all examples of information that we may openly share online.
Sometimes, however, we do so unwittingly.
Think of all those fine print pages you agree to without reading first…
Why Is Your ISP Tracking You?
It’s not like your ISP sits around in a dark room somewhere watching your every move.
Rather, the kind of tracking an ISP does occurs when you make an online request over their network. Every time you enter a query into the search box of your favorite search engine and click on a given URL, your computer needs to find the right IP address so that it can send you to that website.
Your browser will then send a domain name system (DNS) query to get that IP address to connect you to the website.
The DNS is a public directory and your ISP sees every single request made to it. Because these DNS queries are almost never encrypted and are public anyway, your ISP will see every query sent from your computer, even if you are using an encrypted connection.
If you are using your ISP’s service to read your emails, do online research, watch videos, make purchases, use apps, and almost anything else online, then your ISP has a record of where you go and what you do.
It is this information they can use to make a profit.
How Your ISP Profits from Tracking You
Think of Google as a huge ISP.
The reason Google almost always seems to know what you like, thus pushing the right kind of adverts your way (think suggested videos on YouTube), is because it has a record of your searches and knows what you prefer.
Your ISP works in much the same way. By storing this data, they partner with advertisers to lump you into a specific demographic toward which certain adverts can be pushed.
So while advertisers say that the information they use from the ISP is not linked in any way to specific IP addresses and cannot be used to identify people, the truth is – with the right kind of motivation and enough in-depth data, this is actually possible.
Since President Trump chose to repeal the proposed online privacy laws that would have required the ISP to get your permission before selling or using your data, these companies now have more freedom to use the data they collect and make a profit by selling it to advertisers.
How to Stop Your ISP from Tracking You
Now that you know your ISP is tracking you, what can you do about it? Are there methods you can use to limit, if not eliminate, your ISPs ability to track you?
Yes, there are!
There are things that you can do to limit how much of your data your ISP has and can use.
However, completely eliminating its ability to track some of your moves online will require drastic measures, such as not using the internet at all.
Here are some methods to help stop your ISP from tracking you:
- Use HTTPS: To be clear, using HTTPS does not mean that everything you do online will be encrypted. Using HTTPS instead of HTTP ensures that your data is encrypted before transferring it, thus making it more secure. You can install the Chrome and Firefox extension HTTPS Everywhere to ensure this always happens.
- Use Tor to browse anonymously: Tor is a wide network of virtual tunnels that allow you to browse the internet without leaving any traces. Once you download Tor, you will get directed to a special browser called TorBrowser. This browser will provide you with a protected IP address which is different from your own. Within this browser, you can use the internet anonymously.
- Use off-shore VPNs: Off-shore VPNs like BolehVPN and NordVPN do not log any kind of access you make online.
- Adjust your DNS: As we’ve seen, the DNS is how your computer turns a web address, e.g. digital.com, into an Internet Protocol address that’s machine-friendly because it’s numerical (consider it like the internet’s version of a telephone book). However, as we know, your PC usually uses the DNS of your ISP. While a VPN should alter this, you can make 100% sure by checking what DNS your computer is using before setting the DNS to a third-party DNS provider, like OpenDNS.
While these tactics might help you increase your privacy levels online, they do not make you completely invisible to your ISP.
It’s important to understand that ISPs are in business for profit. A huge part of that profit comes from the fact that advertisers can use the data these ISPs mine from your browsing habits to target you with product information. The fact that many of us also willingly put so much of our information online, adds to this pool of mined data and makes it easy for advertisers and ISPs to track you.
Online privacy issues are a much bigger deal than most people think. Just look at the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica controversy.
While it might not be possible to stay completely invisible online without actually staying off the internet altogether, there are things you can do to make it more difficult for your ISP to track you and every move you make online.