Unless you’re having issues with your internet service, you probably don’t put much thought into what your ISP, or internet service provider, is doing. But, have you ever taken a minute to think about what your ISP can see when you’re connected to the Internet?
Just like Google, your ISP is capable of learning a great deal about you via your online activity. This is because your traffic is routed through their servers, which allows them to see any data that isn’t encrypted before reaching it.
This is typically done for their own reasons, but in some cases, ISPs have been known to sell this personal information for marketing reasons.
What Data Does Your ISP Collect?
There are some major websites out there that still do not encrypt their pages. This means that your ISP can see the site URLs and the content being viewed on the pages you visit.
Most of these sites only provide your ISP with lower data volumes; however, much of this is highly private and sensitive information, which can quickly reveal a clear picture of the user’s life both online and offline as well.
Even some encrypted websites which use HTTPS protocols might display warnings because certain parts of their website, such as third-party advertisements, might be unencrypted.
Then, there’s the fact that many devices fail to encrypt the data they send and receive, which means that there’s plenty of information left completely visible for your ISP to collect.
What Can ISPs Do with Your Data?
While it isn’t likely a person sitting in your ISP’s headquarters is watching and monitoring every single click you make, that doesn’t mean your online activity isn’t being logged and stored somewhere in their databases.
There are several reasons that your ISP monitors your activity. For ISPs, an internet user’s browsing history can be sold and turned into a stream of revenue for the company. In most cases, ISPs create anonymous browsing logs of their customers’ data, which can be sold to all sorts of marketing agencies.
Recently, some ISPs are even moving towards making online privacy a premium feature for their services. In other words, they’re using your browsing history to market themselves to you, unless you pay an extra fee to keep your activity anonymous.
It’s also important to note that the data collected by your ISP could be accessed by outsiders, such as law enforcement or government agencies. If these organizations provide the ISP with a subpoena, they will be legally obligated to provide any information about you to the authorities.
Why Does This Matter?
Internet marketing and advertising is nothing new. After all, we’re used to seeing advertisements all day long while surfing the internet. So, why should it matter to you if your government uses ISP data to crack down on cyber criminals or terrorists?
Preventing crime is a good thing, right?
For most internet users, knowing that their ISP could potentially be watching their online activity might not seem all that scary. However, for people who live in countries with oppressive governments, even innocent or accidental online activity can quickly become dangerous.
Let’s just take a minute to think about what your ISP might know about you. Maybe — in a past life, of course — you used to illegally download content from peer-to-peer networks. Or, perhaps you’ve simply been browsing websites that you’d prefer no one else knew about.
For example, if you’ve recently been researching the signs and symptoms of cancer, would you want your health insurance company to know about it? Or, would you want your boss to be able to find out that you’ve actively been searching for another job while using your company’s WiFi network? (Note: even without a snooping ISP, your workplace could very well be monitoring your online activity at the office.)
No matter how you look at it, our browsing history can reveal quite a bit about us. Therefore, it’s best to keep this information between nobody but you and your computer or device.
We also live in a time when data breaches happen almost daily. Therefore, assuming that your personal information is safe with anyone is an extremely naive belief. Even ISPs can be targeted and are susceptible to cyber-attacks.
Your internet service provider is the only entity that stands between you and the rest of the internet. This means that it’s impossible to hide from them altogether. However, you can make sure that you’re protected by encrypting your online activity and concealing your browsing history.
Protecting Your Browsing History
There are many services such as VPNs or proxy servers, which secure your data and keep your ISP from being able to see what you’re doing while connected to the internet.
VPNs, or virtual private networks, are the safest and most common method for protecting yourself while browsing the internet.
When you connect to the internet via a VPN service, you’ll be accessing it through a secure, encrypted connection. Essentially, this masks your IP address and makes it appear to be originating from the server’s location, as opposed to your actual location.
You can also connect to the internet via a proxy server or website, which essentially does the same thing as a VPN, by hiding your IP address and keeping your browsing history completely anonymous.
By now, you should be wondering: Who is watching you?
RELATED: How do VPNs work?
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