What Is ISP Tracking and How Do You Stop It in 2023?
In March 2017, the United States Congress voted to eliminate a regulation passed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) months prior. This policy would have required your internet service provider (ISP) to get your permission before selling the logs they keep of your online activity.
For many people, that legislative scuffle was the first time they’d heard of ISPs keeping logs of user activity, let alone selling the data. Yet for many years, user tracking has been a key revenue stream for internet providers.
The ISPs argued that the regulation would keep them from competing with Google, Facebook and other companies that make bank from selling user activity logs to advertisers. Opponents rightly pointed out that there are search engines other than Google, while ISPs enjoy a natural monopoly. Because of how hard it is to set one up, there’s often only one in a given region.
So, if you have no choice but to use an ISP that openly begged Congress for the right to spy on you (which was pretty much all of them), do you have any hope to browse the web in peace and privacy?
You’re in luck — there is a way to fight back. It starts with learning what you’re up against.
Is it against the law for internet service providers to track the websites I visit?It’s perfectly legal. The FCC tried to regulate the practice in 2017, but was struck down by congress. In fact, some jurisdictions actually require ISP tracking for law enforcement purposes.
Can my ISP see my anonymous browsing history?Yes. Browsing in incognito mode prevents your browser from saving your history, but your ISP still sees everything.
Are there ways to keep my ISP from tracking me without a VPN?You could use an HTTPS Everywhere extension, Tor browser or a proxy server, but none of those block ISP tracking as effectively as VPNs.
What Is ISP Tracking?
Your ISP is almost certainly spying on you, but what does that look like? Is Comcast peering in your window? Are Verizon employees going through your garbage?
No, they aren’t (or if they are, you’ve got problems we can’t help you with). ISP tracking is subtler and more insidious than that.
It all starts with a double-edged sword known as an IP address, which is a digital fingerprint that serves as your individual identity whenever you’re online. Most of the time, your IP address is given to you by your ISP, so they can see everything you do on the internet. And if they can see it, they can log it.
What Is an ISP?
An Internet Service Provider is the most common way for the average person to get online. ISPs set up local networks that take the signal from your modem and router, and send it on to websites all across the globe.
It is technically possible to get on the internet without going through an ISP — emphasis on “technically.” Unless you’re an infrastructure engineer, it’s extremely difficult to jury-rig your way onto the internet. Just imagine the difference between hiring professionals to renovate your kitchen and trying to do it yourself.
Most people let their ISP get away with a lot in exchange for the right to watch Netflix, but there’s no reason to accept surveillance on top of the price-gouging.
Why Is My Internet Service Provider Tracking Me?
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the answer is “money.” ISPs aren’t logging your activity for a voyeuristic thrill. They log user data — and sell it — so they can make cold hard cash.
Think of all the information you share with the internet every day, often without knowing that you’re doing it. If you spend 30 minutes on a website that sells shoes, your ISP knows that you’re in the market for a new pair. If you live in the Pacific Northwest and spend several hours a week on grief counseling sites, they know you’re probably a fan of the Seattle Mariners.
Any data like that is pure gold to advertisers, which are desperate to figure out how to target their ads to people who will care about them. Marketers these days are obsessed with relevance, since it’s the only reliable way to get noticed in an ad-saturated world. They’ll pay through the nose to get a tip about someone who might want their stuff.
What Is a No-Log Policy?
But there’s one online industry conspicuously absent from the trend: the ISP world.
Top VPNs don’t make money by selling data, so a no-log policy is a net-positive for them. But an ISP vowing not to log data would be like a movie theater refusing to sell concessions. You won’t see them cutting off a major revenue stream like that.
How to Block ISP Tracking
We’ve mentioned that there are ways to fight back, and it’s almost time to talk about them. First, though, we’d like to mention a couple of things that don’t work.
What Doesn’t Work
Clearing your browser history does not keep your ISP from seeing it. Clearing your history erases activity logs on your own device, but all your data is still out there for your ISP to see — just like deleting an email from your inbox doesn’t delete it for the sender.
Same with incognito mode. It prevents your web browser from saving data, but does nothing to keep it from your ISP.
It also won’t work to use somebody else’s WiFi, or a public connection. Most ISPs generate a unique IP for each device that logs on, so your activity is associated with your device, not your modem or router.
So What Does Work?
Anything from this list:
- Use HTTPS: HTTPS is a more secure form of HTTP, the HyperText Transfer Protocol, which is the basis for the World Wide Web. If a website supports HTTPS, you should be able to add “s” after “http” in the URL and see a “secure” notification in your browser bar. However, HTTPS alone isn’t enough to keep you safe from ISP tracking. It encrypts the contents of the websites you visit, but not the URLs. Your ISP can still see what domains you visit, and sell that information to advertisers.
- Use a VPN: A virtual private network (VPN) is far and away the best solution to stop ISP tracking. By encrypting your web traffic and running it through an alternative server, a VPN makes it impossible for anybody to see what you do online without your consent — even your ISP. Read the VPN encryption and benefits of VPN guides to learn more.
- Use Tor (The Onion Router): “Onion routing” is a technique that claims to make you impossible to track online. Web browser Tor is the best-known way to harness its power. Tor Browser routes all your requests through several nodes, adding a layer of encryption each time; at the destination, the layers are removed, much like you’d peel an onion. Sounds great, but there’s a major catch: Tor’s nodes are maintained by anonymous volunteers. There’s no vetting process. Most volunteers are cool, but enough of them like to inject malware that many websites block Tor access across the board. Read the VPN vs Tor guide to learn more.
How to Use a VPN to Prevent Your ISP From Tracking You
It’s easy to see why the one-two punch of a VPN — reroute and encrypt — works so well to improve digital security and keep your personal information safe. Each function is insufficient on its own, but when combined, they shore up each other’s weaknesses.
A service that reroutes without encrypting is usually called a proxy server. These make it seem like your activity is coming from a different IP address, but anyone who cares to can follow your connection back to the source. But with encryption, third parties don’t know what traffic is worth following.
A service that encrypts without rerouting is…well, it’s HTTPS, and we already talked about why that’s flawed. With a VPN, nobody can connect you with the URLs you visit.
As for how to use a VPN, don’t be frightened by how technical it sounds. The best VPNs go out of their way to be user-friendly — not to patronize their users, but to fit into their busy lives. You shouldn’t have to be an infrastructure engineer to exercise your right to privacy and anonymity.
To use most VPNs, all you need to do is start the app, then click the button to connect to one of its servers. If you want, you can choose a server or just have the VPN automatically connect to whichever is fastest.
The most important thing is that you can’t just have the VPN desktop app open. You need to actually be connected. Forgetting to connect is like assuming you’re having safe sex because there’s a condom on your nightstand.
Best VPN for ISP Privacy
So now you must be wondering which VPN to use to make sure your ISP doesn’t track your browsing history, internet traffic or really everything you do online. (As an extra bonus, using a VPN can also help you avoid bandwidth throttling, if your ISP does that.) Here’s my top two VPN suggestions.
Our favorite VPN has a strict no-logging policy that it’s never been caught violating. ExpressVPN is one of the fastest VPN services out there, plus it’s user-friendly, virtually uncrackable and surprisingly affordable. Read my full ExpressVPN review for more details.
NordVPN has a spotless privacy record, just like ExpressVPN. But privacy is not all it offers. This is a top-tier VPN in every area, with secure encryption on all protocols, a seamless interface and almost no effect on your browsing speed. Read my full NordVPN review for more details.
Can I Use a Free VPN to Block ISP Tracking?
Technically, yes, you can use a free VPN to mask your browsing habits. But we normally don’t recommend it.
One of the sayings we live by here at PrivacyJournal is: “If the product is free, then you’re the product.” If a VPN provider doesn’t charge subscription fees, then how is it making money?
You guessed it: by selling user data to advertisers, the very same way ISPs cash in. If you’re using a VPN, the VPN provider is the only entity that can see your activity, and an unscrupulous company won’t hesitate to profit.
If your VPN budget is extremely limited, we recommend going with the cheap but effective Private Internet Access, or the well-built free version of Windscribe.
So there you go, folks. You know that your ISP is tracking you, but you also now know how to stop it. The short answer: use a reliable VPN (like ExpressVPN) to hide your online activity from your ISP. This VPN should have a no-logs policy, practice minimal data retention and will encrypt your traffic from your internet provider.
What do you think of ISPs tracking everything you do online? Will you use a VPN to protect your privacy? Leave your comments below. Thanks for reading!
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