By default, your internet service provider (ISP) can see everything you do online. All your uploads and downloads go through their infrastructure. They’re the perfectly positioned middleman.
Once they have your data, pretty most things your ISP does with it are fair game. It can be analyzed for who knows what, sold to the highest bidder or handed over to authorities when requested.
There are, however, steps we can all take to block ISP tracking and remain anonymous online. And while some work better than others, if you value your privacy and don’t want your information to be treated like a currency, any one of them is better than not doing anything at all.
What Can My ISP See and Track
As the middleman on your data’s journey to or from the internet, the ISP can track almost everything about your online activities. When you connect to the internet, you do so with an IP address assigned by them, using their equipment and network.
That puts your ISP in an excellent position to see and log all of the following:
- Which websites or services you visit (through DNS queries)
- The content of unencrypted websites and downloads
- The source of encrypted information
- Your physical location any time you use the internet
- The times and dates of everything
Yes, ISPs can tall which websites you browse. In all cases, they will know the address of the site you visited, when it happened, and the amount of data you pulled down from it.
If the website uses the secure version of the HTTP protocol (you can tell that is the case if the address starts with https://), the above is all your ISP can get. All other information is encrypted and unreadable.
If, however, you access an unsecured website (which plenty of sites still are), none of the data you download is encrypted, and your ISP can literally see everything.
How to Hide Internet Activity From ISPs
Your ISP is watching, we now know that. If, like me and the majority of internet users, you’re uneasy with the enormous level of access an ISP has to what you do online, you have options to stop them their tracks.
There are four ways in which you can prevent ISP tracking and hide your internet activity. They are as follows (ordered from most to least effective).
Use a VPN
The most foolproof way to stop ISP tracking is to use a virtual private network (VPN). It can be used on any device, from your computer or smartphone to your router or smart TV.
You use a VPN by connecting your device to a VPN server. That connection is fully encrypted. So, even though all data you send and receive still passes over your ISP’s network, they have no way of finding out what it is.
To the ISP, it’s all gibberish. They don’t know which websites you’re visiting or what information you’re downloading.
VPNs take things a step further too. They change out your ISP assigned IP address for one belonging to the VPN server.
The IP swap means that any website or online service you’re accessing has no idea they’re actually talking to you. They’ll also think you’re located wherever the VPN server is (which could be in a completely different country), not where you actually are.
The downside of using a VPN is that you’re shifting the burden of protecting your privacy from your ISP to the VPN provider. When you connect to them, the VPN has the same ability to track your online activities as your ISP previously did.
This is the reason why it’s critical to pick a VPN with a strict no-logging policy and a track record of sticking to it. As long as you’re careful in your selection, there’s no better way of staying anonymous online and leaving your ISP in the dark than with a VPN.
Another excellent way of preventing your ISP from tracking your online activities is to use Tor. It’s is an encrypted network designed, from the ground up, specifically for user privacy.
Tor makes use of a technique known as onion routing. It creates a randomized path for your data and takes it through multiple nodes (or servers) located anywhere in the world before it reaches its ultimate destination.
Similar to VPNs, everything on the Tor network is encrypted. So, once again, your ISP has no way of finding out where you go online or what you download.
The problem with Tor is that it only works for browsing. You can’t protect with it other software (like a BitTorrent client) or devices (like your tablet).
It is also notoriously slow and may reduce your internet connection to a crawl. The thousands of nodes which make up the Tor network are volunteer-operated and, unfortunately, the hardware used is often mediocre at best.
Use a Proxy
A slightly less common, though still widely-used method some of us opt for to stop ISP data collection is a proxy.
A proxy, like a VPN, routes your internet traffic through a server, preventing your ISP from finding out what online resource you’re accessing. That, though, is where the similarities end.
Proxies don’t use encryption. So, even if your ISP can’t see where you’re connecting to, they can still analyze the contents of your data.
If, for example, you’re downloading something you shouldn’t be, they’ll know.
As is the case with Tor nodes, most proxies are also run by volunteers. The lack of encryption leaves your data open to manipulation at the proxy server level. If you use a proxy from an untrusted source, you may one day find your device infected with malware (it’s a relatively rare and extreme case, but it does happen).
Finally, the most basic thing you can use to stop your ISP from tracking your activity is to connect to websites which use the HTTPS protocol.
HTTPS encrypts the connection between your browser and the website you’re visiting. But, as mentioned before, your ISP will still be able to find out quite a bit of information about what you’re doing.
They’ll know the address of any website you visit. Your ISP will also know precisely when you connected to the site and how much data you’ve downloaded from it.
Still, HTTPS connections at least provide a small amount of privacy, so it’s a good idea to use them anytime you can. It’s far better than nothing.
There’s a browser plugin you can use too called HTTPS Everywhere which will automatically enable a secure connection if a website supports it.
You can also combine HTTPS use with proxies, to give you something that almost resembles a VPN. The former supplies the encryption and prevents ISP data inspection, the latter hides from your ISP the online resource you’re connecting to.
More on VPNs and ISP Tracking
From the above four options of keeping ISP tracking and monitoring at bay, VPNs are the most complete and convenient solution. It’s what most people (myself including) tend to gravitate towards. As such, let’s dig into them a bit more.
What Does My ISP See When I Use a VPN
When you use a VPN, your ISP cannot see which websites you visit or what online services you use. It also can’t peek into any data you send or receive. All it can see is encrypted information traveling between your device and a server.
To put it a different way, when you’re connected to a VPN, what the ISP sees is a bunch undecipherable gibberish that’s going to or coming from some unknown location on the internet.
Will My ISP Know I’m Using a VPN
Unless you take specific steps to hide your VPN use, your ISP can figure out you’re using one (assuming they care to look, of course).
The one bit of data your ISP knows is the IP address of the VPN server you’re connected to. It’s not difficult to figure out that the server is indeed a VPN server and from there, which provider it belongs to.
That said, VPNs are perfectly legal in the vast majority of countries, and I have never heard of an ISP punishing customers for using one.
What if you live somewhere where VPN use is not allowed? Or if, for some reason, you really, really don’t want your ISP to know you’re using a VPN?
In either of those cases, many providers offer an obfuscated VPN service. By using special technology, they can prevent VPN detection and allow them to slip under the radar of any ISP.
Can an ISP Block VPNs
In theory, yes, your ISP may be able to block a VPN. In practice, it’s not something you need to worry about, especially in countries where VPN use is legal.
Whether a VPN connection can be blocked mostly depends on what protocol is used. PPTP, for example, is an easy target. It uses a single port which can easily be blocked by any firewall.
But other protocols can be a lot trickier to shut out. Take OpenVPN (which just about every provider supports). It can be configured to use any arbitrary port and either TCP or UDP, making it much more of a moving target.
OpenVPN can even be set up to work on TCP port 443, which is where normal HTTPS web browsing happens.
In that case, even though you’re using a VPN, it will look like you’re just visiting a website which happens to use HTTPS (think Gmail or your online banking). And since blocking that port would stop those services from working, doing so is not really an option.
How to Use a VPN to Prevent ISP Monitoring
Getting set up with a VPN and blocking your ISP from spying on you is quite easy. Here are the steps:
- Find a VPN provider which best suits your needs. Here are some things to consider when picking one and, if you’re interested, a list of good services you can use a starting point in your search.
- Sign up for the service.
- From your selected provider’s website, download and install the client for your device or platform. Any better VPN will have software for at least Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS.
- Start the client and pick a server to connect to. Which one you choose will depend on what you’re trying to do. For example, for the fastest connection possible, you’ll likely just want a server that’s close to your location. But, to unblock US Netflix, you’ll want a server in the US.
- You’re all set. Use the internet as you usually would. Everything should work just as it did without a VPN, except your ISP can no longer monitor your traffic.
It’s also worth noting that many providers have an option to start up their client and connect to the VPN automatically when you turn on your device. It’s an option to consider if you intend to keep your ISP in the dark all day every day.
Can I Use a Free VPN to Stop ISP Tracking
Free VPNs can be tricky. There are a few decent ones, but the vast majority you should stay clear of. Using them can just as bad, if not worst, than just letting your ISP monitor your traffic.
One thing a free provider is not is a charity. They need to make money and often do so by tracking and selling user activity. And that’s precisely what you’re trying to avoid by shutting out your ISP.
Selling data can be just the tip of the iceberg too. You may also need to deal with ad injection, weak encryption, and slow performance. There are plenty of differences between free VPNs and paid VPNs that tip the scales towards the use of the latter, despite the cost.
Your ISP sees all and knows all about what you do online. Privacy and anonymity are non-existent. But, you now know that there is something you can do about it.
There are effective ways to block ISP tracking and hide your internet activities from it. And whether you decide to use a VPN, Tor, or any of the other methods mentioned, one thing is sure. You’ll be back in control, just as it should be.