VPNs and Your ISP

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It’s no news that VPNs and ISPs have a (now) long-standing love-hate – no wait, it’s mostly hate – relationship. Yes, an ISP provides you with an internet connection, which is great, but you pay monthly fees to your ISP for your internet – so really, you’re square. However, some ISPs have been known to make money on the side, too. Namely, some ISPs collect your data and sell it to third parties, such as marketing companies.

Luckily, VPNs thwart these efforts by encrypting all your data and keeping it away from the prying eyes of ISPs. So in our context, the ISP is the bad guy. And while it’s not like there’s a shady man with dead little eyes, sitting in a leather desk chair, petting a white Persian cat purring in his lap, observing what you do online in real time, internet privacy is a serious issue. The majority of what you do online – yes, in Incognito tabs as well – is saved on your ISP’s servers and accessible to them, which makes it accessible to marketers and government agencies, too.

The best way to create a strategy on how to keep your data secure and private is to learn how ISPs function, what they can see, and why they “spy” on you. In other words, you need to be equipped with the knowledge of the dangers and downsides of having all your data available to third parties. A lot of the time people think welp, it’s not like I’ve got anything to hide! But this is far from the point. It’s a short leap from I’ve got nothing to hide to living in a Big Brother state. And mind you, in this scenario Big Brother is not only the government – it’s awful marketing companies too. So, let us take you through the labyrinth of why you should keep your data private from ISPs, and how using a VPN can help you achieve this.

Why Is Your ISP Spying On You?

There are a couple of reasons why ISPs spy on their customers’ traffic. Let’s start off with the most obvious one – selling your data. Your browsing history is a gold mine for marketers. What did you search for? Which service did you use to send an email? Who are you communicating with? What sort of content do you usually respond to? And this isn’t even the full list of all the information ISPs can gather from your online activities (we’ll cover this more in the next section).

In other words, without your knowledge or authorization, ISPs comfortably compile your data and store it, usually, for a period between six months to two years. They then sell it to third parties, i.e. advertising companies, which can then send targeted ads to you and others in your location.

The other sort of organizations that can easily get their hands on your data via ISPs are government agencies. In the US, for instance, ISPs are legally bound to retain client data and share it with government agencies (like law enforcement), if they’re served with a subpoena.

What Can Your ISP See?

When you don’t use any privacy protection technology, like the Tor browser or a VPN, your ISP can see a lot of your online activity. In short, ISP’s can see:

  • Your IP address
  • Port numbers
  • What websites you’ve visited
  • Login times
  • How much time you spend on a given website
  • Who you email – if you’re using their email service, (according to EFF’s Dan Auerbach), and with enough effort, the content of your emails, too.

This is all the basic metadata that your ISP can easily track if you don’t share personal data online (like your email on your social media account). In fact, with all this information, an ISP can quickly paint a picture of your personal life, like if you’re facing financial difficulties, having any medical problems, or are searching for a new job. Imagine if your bank, insurance company, and employer, respectively, also got access to this information.

According to a detailed Upturn report, an ISP can know exactly what’s going on in a pivotal moment in your life based on just an hour of internet search history. The example they give is of a person who within an hour or so has Googled abortion facts, funds, and clinics. Guess what your ISP will be able to conclude?

Now, this is some of the information your ISP can gather if you don’t share personal data online, as we mentioned. However, if you do share personal data online, as most people do, they will also have access to:

  • Your email
  • Your phone number
  • Your social media profiles and social media activities (like comments)
  • Your private and business relationships.

How to fight back, you ask? A good first step is using a VPN. When you use a VPN, all your ISP can see is that you’re online and connected to a VPN server. As a VPN server encrypts your data, your ISP no longer has access to it.

Why Should You Care?

We already went over some of the information that your ISP can hoard that could be turned against you if it fell in the hands of your bank, employer, or insurance company. The main predator, of course, are marketing companies. Unfortunately, ads – today more than ever before – are fine-tuned, targeted, and worst of all: political.

Take the 2016 US presidential elections for an example. Numerous fake news stories came up as sponsored ads on Facebook and were tailored to target people who – based on their personal data – seemed easier to influence or tilt in the direction of voting for Trump. 

In other words, personal data was used to unfairly sway voter opinion. But the point isn’t who or what you wish to support. The point is that, regardless of what your political views are, you certainly wouldn’t want to base your opinion on explosive headlines and fake information that hasn’t been fact-checked before being released into the wild (of social media). And ISPs can sell your information to anyone who has the money. This is why you should care.

It’s important to protect your privacy – so start with your ISP

On another personal note, we also already mentioned that it’s a short leap from who cares? to living in a Big Brother-type society. But what could the government possibly want with your information, anyway?

To begin with, torrents, anyone? While the government would probably usually use their invasive powers to track down larger-scale criminals, your record may not be as clean as you imagine. A single copyright infringement, like using a torrent client to download a film or music album, can land you in a world of trouble.

How Can You Block ISP Tracking?

What we talked about so far was the problem – now onto the solution. How can you protect yourself from your ISP and block ISP tracking? You can use the Tor browser, online proxies, a VPN, or all of the above. We’ll go over each method quickly before focusing on VPNs, the star of today’s show.

Tor is a good beginning, as it blocks trackers by isolating each website you visit. In this way, it doesn’t allow third parties and ads to follow you. Once you’re done browsing, your cookies and browsing history are automatically cleared.

The second thing that you can try is a proxy service. When you download a proxy such as Proxify or use an online proxy like Anonymouse, it hides your IP and encrypts your online activity. However, VPNs have quite a few advantages over proxies. While proxies only redirect your web requests, VPNs reroute all your network’s traffic and make it anonymous. This includes torrenting, for instance.

So basically, the best way to block ISP tracking is by using a VPN. If you’re really concerned about privacy, however, you can also use Onion over VPN (Tor over VPN – NordVPN, for instance, offers this feature).

VPNs hide your IP address, your data, and your DNS; they hide all the traffic that goes through your network by rerouting it through an encrypted tunnel to their servers. Your ISP will have no access to any of your online activities – all they’ll be able to see is how much data you’ve spent.

Of course, your data then becomes visible to VPN servers, so isn’t this another problem? Well, if you choose well, it isn’t. In other words, you need to choose a paid (not free!), high-quality VPN provider that keeps zero logs of your activities, or at least keeps zero identifying logs (some VPNs may keep logs of when you go online and so on). When choosing the best VPN provider for you, take into consideration factors such as number of servers and server locations, as these can affect your internet connection speed.

You should also consider the type of encryption you prefer and make sure it’s offered. Additionally, you may wish to look over features that boost security, privacy (check your VPN’s jurisdiction to make sure governments won’t be able to forcefully access your private data), whether they have a kill switch, split tunneling, ad and malware blockers, and so on. You should also check if your VPN of choice has the necessary software in the form of native apps or firmware that’s compatible with the device you want to connect to it. Lastly, check how many simultaneous connections (devices) you can get from your VPN on a single account. The number changes based on the provider.

Can A VPN Protect You From ISP Throttling?

ISP throttling, or bandwidth throttling, is when your ISP slows down the speed of your internet connection when you frequent a particular site or engage in a particular online activity – like streaming or downloading. If you’ve experienced frequent video buffering, laggy gaming, or slow downloads – especially on p2p networks like torrenting – there’s a good chance that your ISP is intentionally decreasing your bandwidth.

Luckily, a VPN can help you end bandwidth throttling. As we’ve already mentioned, a VPN hides the nature of your online traffic, so your ISP won’t be able to see what you’re doing and intentionally slow you down. Especially for torrents, VPNs are a godsend. The VPN will hide what you’re doing, and the ISP won’t be able to stick their nose in your business.

Do ISPs Care If You Use a VPN?

Your ISP will know if you’re using a VPN. Aside from all the encrypted data, they’re able to see that you’re connected to a VPN-provided IP address and that your devices are connected to ports which are associated with standard VPN activity.

However, they can’t see what websites you’re visiting or what you’re spending your data on. ISPs mainly care about two things: not getting into trouble and getting paid. Are you visiting websites that are banned through your VPN? Not their fault. Are you paying your monthly fees? Yes? Good enough.

So basically, unless you live in a country where VPNs are illegal (you can easily check that just in case), your ISP shouldn’t care if you’re using a VPN.

A Few Words Before You Go…

Hopefully, you now have a clearer idea of the relationship between a VPN and your ISP. Maybe we seemed a bit biased in the way we presented ISPs, but it’s hard not to have a critical look at corporate organizations that have been known to sell the private data of their clients without authorization. Social media websites (like Facebook), streaming sites (like Netflix), and shopping sites (like Amazon) play ball with your private data, all in hopes to monetize you further.

So a good beginning to keeping your private data private is getting a VPN. Your ISP won’t be able to track you or control what you spend your data on.

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