In today’s connectivity age, online privacy comes first. If almost everything you do is connected to the internet, how can you control what others know about you? If you are already unaware of this, then you should read up on ISP tracking, government espionage, and protecting yourself.
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You may not think your privacy is that important. A common excuse is, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so I don’t have to worry about it.” However, this is not the best way to think about things. Data protection doesn’t just protect people who engage in illegal activities. For example, when you use the toilet, you’re not doing anything illegal – but do you really want a video of it posted online for everyone to see? Probably not because you value your privacy!
In this article, we will give you a brief overview of privacy and security on the Internet. We’ll focus on ISP tracking and most importantly, how to prevent your ISP from tracking you.
Can the government really see everything you do online?
Believe it or not, there is no “yes or no” answer to this question. Some people may think that the government is actively spying on all of its residents. There is a perception that you have a team of FBI agents specifically assigned to watch everything you do online.
In the United States, this is almost certainly not the case for the average person. But even if the government isn’t active If you monitor your internet habits, there is little stopping you from getting this information.
By this we mean that it is very easy for a government agency – including the police – to get a report on your internet usage. All the officers have to do is ask your Internet Service Provider (ISP) for the information. In the US, they don’t even need an arrest warrant.
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Your ISP is often required by law to provide all information to the government upon request. See the fine print of your service contract with your ISP for wording that discloses this practice.
In essence, there is no team of FBI agents overseeing every online interaction as it is not required. Your ISP is already doing all the work. All it takes is an official request and a boom: the government has all the information they need about you.
Can your ISP see what you are doing online?
Unless you have taken steps to prevent this from happening, your ISP will keep track of pretty much everything you do online. This means that your internet searches, the websites you have visited, the websites you have downloaded, etc. can be viewed at any time.
Depending on where you are in the world, your ISP may have a legal obligation to keep this information on you for a period of time. Additionally, your ISP is most likely benefiting from your data by selling it to advertisers, much like Google does with its own data tracking.
In addition to tracking your information, your ISP is likely required by law to do so!
Your ISP also flags certain activities on your devices. For example, if you download loads of new games to your game console, your ISP will find that you are downloading hundreds of gigabytes of data. It wants to know this so it can throttle your data if you need to (if you have unlimited data) or restrict your data if you have a limited plan.
However, that’s not all your ISP is looking for. It will also track and flag suspicious activity such as downloading P2P torrents or visiting websites that focus on explicitly illegal content (drug or firearms selling, terrorism, human trafficking, etc.). In the case of torrenting, major publishers can request this information and then ask your ISP to reprimand you for illegally downloading copyrighted content.
The bottom line is that ISP tracking happens on every connected device you own. Fortunately, you can prevent this from happening if you wish.
How to stop your ISP from tracking you
The easiest way to prevent your ISP from logging your online data is to use a virtual private network, or VPN. A VPN encrypts your data by transmitting it to different servers. This doesn’t prevent your ISP from seeing the data, it just prevents them from knowing what it means. Instead of logging that you visited AndroidAuthority.com, for example, it displays a series of icons that look like gibberish.
Additionally, any government agency that wants to see your data will only see gibberish. If you’re using a good quality VPN, there’s almost no chance the government will decrypt this data.
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Of course, the government could then go to your VPN provider and try to pull the data from there, ignoring your ISP tracking data. However, because VPNs are not bound by the same laws as ISPs, there is no rule that the VPN service must keep your data by. A good service has a no logging policy. This means that your data will never be saved. This means that the government cannot sustain them.
The only major downside to using a VPN is that it always costs you money to get good service. There are free VPNs out there, but these are usually slow and most don’t have strict no-logging policies. For the greatest possible security and convenience, you need a paid VPN.
We have a full article on the best VPNs you can get right now, along with a beginner’s guide on how to use one. We strongly recommend reading this!
What about encrypted browsers like Tor?
Encrypted browsers are also a great way to keep your internet data private. Most of these browsers – including the most popular product, Tor – mimick a VPN by pushing your data across multiple nodes that are actually other users’ computers.
The idea is the same here: a government agency requests the data logged by ISP tracking, and the ISP can only produce gibberish. In this case, however, there is no VPN service so the agency has nowhere to go to request the data.
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Since Tor is free, you might think that this is better than a VPN. However, there are two very important factors to consider. The first is that the Exit Relay, or the last user node through which your data is transmitted, is not encrypted with Tor. This means that your data is still there somewhere on the internet. Obviously, it wouldn’t be incredibly difficult for anyone to find and match with you, but it’s not as foolproof as a quality VPN service with a no-logging policy.
The second reason Tor isn’t better than a VPN is because it’s just a browser. If you do something on the internet that is not done through a browser, that activity will not be encrypted.
In general, we recommend using private browsers like Tor with a VPN. As a last resort, use a private browser without a VPN.
ISP tracking: you don’t have to comply
In conclusion, we want to make sure something is completely clear: using a VPN or private browser isn’t illegal in the US (at least not yet). Other countries may have different laws, but here in the US you can always use a VPN for anything.
Some people have a VPN that is permanently on in their router and encrypts all data in their homes. Others only turn a VPN on when they are browsing or downloading sensitive content on their phone or laptop. Whichever option you choose, there is nothing illegal about it.
If you want to learn more about the technical side of VPNs, check out our in-depth explainer article.