Despite the privacy precautions you take, there is someone who can see everything you do online: your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
When it comes to online privacy, there are a lot of steps you can take to clean up your browsing history and prevent sites from tracking you. Most modern web browsers include some form of privacy mode, which allows you to surf without saving cookies, temporary files, or your browsing history to your computer. Many browsers also include a “Do Not Track” mode, which automatically tells websites you want to opt-out of tracking cookies and similar technologies used for advertising purposes.
While these solutions may keep advertisers and anyone using your computer from viewing your browsing history, your ISP can still watch your every move.
Why Is Your ISP Tracking You?
There probably isn’t someone sitting behind his desk at your ISP watching every click you make, but that doesn’t mean your browsing history isn’t getting stored somewhere on their systems.
Your ISP tracks your clicks for a number of reasons. For them, you browsing history is a revenue stream. Many ISPs compile anonymous browsing logs and sell them to marketing companies. Some Internet providers are even moving to make privacy a premium add-on, using your Internet history to market to you in much the same way websites do, unless you pay an additional monthly fee.
What’s more, the data your ISP collects may be accessed by outside organizations, such as the police department or another government agency. If provided with a subpoena, your ISP is legally required to provide whatever information they have on you.
Why Should You Care?
The obvious question here is, what does it matter? We’re advertised to all day long on the Internet, what’s a few more targeted ads? And who cares if the government uses ISP information to bust some criminals or crack down on terrorism.
That’s a good thing, right?
If only it were that simple. For most people, knowing the government could view our online activity probably doesn’t seem too scary. But if you live under an oppressive government, even seemingly innocent online activity can be very dangerous. Plus, in an era of almost-daily data breaches, assuming your information is safe with anyone is naïve at best. Even ISPs can be affected.
So take a moment and think about everything your ISP could potentially know about you. Maybe you use BitTorrent to download the occasional copyrighted song or movie. Maybe you’ve been viewing sites you would prefer your family not know about. If you did some research on cancer warning signs, would you want your health insurance provider to know? And do you really want your boss to find out how actively you’re looking for a new job? Your browsing history says a lot about you, and most of us would prefer that it stayed between us and our computer.
Since your Internet Service Provider stands between you and everything online, you can’t completely hide from them. The best you can do is confuse them by covering your tracks.
How The Onion Router (Tor) Can Help
The Tor Project was originally sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratories as a means of protecting sensitive government communications. It is now a non-profit organization dedicated to improving online privacy tools.
When you use the Tor Browser, your activity is encrypted and sent across a network of Tor servers, making it much harder to trace back to your computer. Let’s say, for instance, that you are trying to speak out against your government’s very strict censorship laws. Doing so on a regular browser could land you in jail or worse. By using Tor, when the government tries to trace that activity, they will see it linked to random servers around the world, not your computer.
There are a number of other anonymous browser projects, including I2P and Freenet, but Tor remains by far the most popular. For anyone who wants to completely encrypt their Internet experience, some Linux-based operating systems, such as Tails, utilize the Tor Network for handling all Internet activity, even if it’s not browser based.
These type of anonymous browsing tools have developed an unfortunate reputation, because the same technology that makes it ideal for protecting user privacy also makes it ideal for conducting illegal activities online.
However, despite this, Tor remains a powerful tool in protecting your privacy.
VPNs and Proxies
Virtual Private Networks (VPN) are most commonly used by businesses to allow employees to work remotely. When you log in from your home or while traveling, the VPN provides an encrypted connection to your work’s network, allowing you to work just as security as if you were in the office. Your browsing history over the VPN is not viewable by your ISP, but it may viewable by your employer.
A number of companies now provide VPN access for regular Internet users. Like VPN for work, these systems allow you to encrypt your online activity, so your ISP cannot track it. These type of private VPNs can be used to provide secure browsing while you’re connected to a public Internet connection, or to mask your online activities from your ISP.
Similar to VPNs, there are a number of proxy services that will hide your IP address and encrypt your online activity. Programs like Proxify can be installed on your device to allow anonymous browsing, while others like Anonymouse must be accessed through the provider’s website.
Be careful when choosing a VPN or proxy service. While they should all allow you to mask your activity from your ISP and the websites you visit, some of them may actually keep their own logs of your browsing activity. Be sure to check their terms of service; otherwise you may wind up paying for the same lack of privacy you were already getting!
A Final World of Caution
While the above tools are perfectly legal to utilize, the activities you choose to use them for are still governed by the same laws as everything else you do online. They may make it harder for your ISP or anyone else to track your activities, but they won’t make it impossible.
If you’re doing something that deserves to be on the FBI’s radar, don’t expect to get away with it just because you’re using Tor. And remember, privacy can be a very powerful tool, but everyone’s privacy is put in jeopardy by those who abuse it.