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 not already aware of this, then you should read about ISP tracking, government spying, and how to protect 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 not only protects people who participate in illegal activities. For example, when you use the bathroom, you are not doing anything illegal, but do you really want a video to be posted online for everyone to see? Probably not because you value your privacy!
In this article, we will give you a brief overview of Internet privacy and security. 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 monitor everything you do online.
In the United States, this is almost certainly not the case for the average person. But even if the government doesn’t active If you monitor your Internet habits, there is little to stop you from getting this information.
By this we mean that it is very easy for a government agency, including the police, to obtain a report on your Internet use. All agents have to do is request the information from their Internet Service Provider (ISP). In the United States, they don’t even need an arrest warrant.
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Often times, the law requires your ISP to provide all information to the government upon request. See the fine print of your service contract with your ISP for the wording of this practice.
In essence, there is no team of FBI agents monitoring every online interaction, as it is not necessary. Your ISP is already doing all the work. All it takes is an official application and a boom – the government has all the information it needs about you.
Can your ISP see what you are doing online?
Unless you’ve taken steps to prevent this from happening, your ISP will keep track of virtually 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 about you for a period of time. Also, your ISP will most likely profit from your data by selling it to advertisers, just like Google does with its own data tracking.
In addition to tracking your information, your ISP is probably required by law to do so.
Your ISP also marks certain activities on your devices. For example, if you download a lot of new games to your game console, your ISP will find that you are downloading hundreds of gigabytes of data. You want to know this so that you can speed up your data if necessary (if you have unlimited data) or limit your data if you have a limited plan.
However, that is not all your ISP is looking for. It will also track and flag suspicious activities, such as downloading P2P torrents or visiting websites that focus on explicitly illegal content (sale of drugs or firearms, terrorism, human trafficking, etc.). In the case of torrents, major publishers can ask for 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 want.
How to prevent your ISP from tracking you
The easiest way to prevent your ISP from logging your data online is to use a virtual private network or VPN. A VPN encrypts your data by transmitting it to different servers. This doesn’t stop your ISP from seeing the data, it just prevents them from knowing what it means. Instead of recording that you visited AndroidAuthority.com, for example, it displays a series of icons that look like gibberish.
Also, any government agency that wants to see your data will only see gibberish. If you are using a good quality VPN, there is almost no chance of the government decrypting this data.
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Of course, the government could go to your VPN provider and try to extract the data from there, ignoring the tracking data from your ISP. However, VPNs are not subject to the same laws as ISPs, there is no rule that the VPN service should keep your data. 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, but they are generally slow and most do not have strict no-logging policies. For the best possible security and convenience, you need a paid VPN.
We have a full article on the best VPNs you can get right now, as well as a beginner’s guide on how to use one. We highly 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, mimic a VPN by sending your data through multiple nodes that are actually other users’ computers.
The idea is the same here: a government agency requests the data logged by the ISP’s 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 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 somewhere on the internet. Obviously, it wouldn’t be incredibly difficult for anyone to find and match you, but it’s not as foolproof as a quality VPN service with a no-logging policy.
The second reason why Tor is no better than a VPN is because it is 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 is not illegal in the US (at least not yet). Different laws may apply in other countries, but here in the US, you can always use a VPN for anything.
Some people have a permanently on VPN on their router that encrypts all the data in their homes. Others only turn on a VPN 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 how-to article.