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Everyone today has an internet service provider (ISP), either directly or indirectly. It’s nearly impossible today to operate in the modern world without one. Yet this brings with it a longstanding concern about privacy. ISPs have a lot of power when it comes to the information they have at their disposal, and most of it is concentrated among a dozen or so major corporations. How are ISPs handling your data, and what can they do with it?
In this article, we’ll be looking at ISPs in general, what they can collect, what they want, and what they might use the information for. Keep reading below to learn more:
In Many Cases, Whatever They Want
At least in the United States, ISPs don’t have many limits placed on them about what they can know by the government, and in some circumstances and places, ISPs are even obligated to keep records as to what you are up to online. They are able to keep track of what domains and IP addresses you visit, and in the case of unencrypted information (whether that is browsing data, emails, or other things) they can see just about exactly what you’re doing if they so desire.
Furthermore, they have or can easily acquire the means to recognize patterns in your browsing, allow them to accurately predict your future habits, main contacts, spending considerations, and more. Things such as your medical history or financial status can also be predicted.
What Are They Looking for?
Your ISP isn’t going to rifle through your browser looking for dirty laundry or blackmail material. They aren’t in that business and that don’t have the time to deal with that. Quite frankly, they aren’t really interested in you as an individual, and this is a good thing. What they are looking for generally fits into one of the following:
- They will notice massive uses of data beyond what the average user would have. They might just simply be throttling your usage after you reach the certain point (sometimes specified on your user agreement or contract, and sometimes not). This would amount to download several terabytes worth of movies or something similar.
- They will also be curious to see if you have been downloading copyrighted content (think of all the people that got caught using ThePirateBay a while back). Some people may remember hearing about the warning letters sent out by ISPs regarding such content, threatening sanctions.
- They may be on the watch for illegal activities relating to things such as trafficking, child pornography, or other things the government may be interested in knowing about you. The extent of this may change according to provider and according to your country.
- They might also be collecting metadata in order to sell to marketers.
What Can They Do with the Data?
Thankfully, at least in the United States, ISPs have not traditionally done much with your individual data. Notably, this may change based on recent legislation. They share it with the government and many ISPs have their own privacy policies against this sort of behavior. What they might do with the data internally, however, is still unknown, and it is also uncertain how this data might be used, and that might be a cause for alarm as ISPs grow even larger and expand into new businesses. For example, Google already knows a lot about you, but that will only increase in those circumstances where it is also an ISP.
They will usually hold on to the data for anywhere from a few weeks to several years, with most falling in the range of three months to two years. They might hold onto it to keep track of patterns evident of any of the above reasons.
More notably and previously mentioned, however, is the collection of metadata that is often sold to marketers extremely interested in such information so they can better target their ads. It’s a practice you’ve probably already noticed on your computer, and ISP-collected data is one way marketers are getting better at what they do year after year.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
While all of this may concern you even if they aren’t interested in you directly (and it’s a perfectly reasonable reaction to be concerned), you should know that fortunately there are ways to limit the data that ISPs can gather from you and your browsing habits.
- Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are the most common solution to this problem and are used by millions of people all over the world. You’ll effectively be running your connection through a remote, protected server and your ISP will only be able to see that you are using a VPN. Tor networks and similar technologies work similarly but have less functionality for everyday internet usage.
- You can make sure that you use domains that have HTTPS protection. While your ISP will still be able to notice a few things like the domain name, they will be able to see far less information.
- If you think that your current ISP is too intrusive and there is a better option available in your area, you can switch providers. You’ll want to do your research beforehand and it might be costly depending on your current agreement, but you might consider your privacy to be worth it.
After looking into what your ISP can know about you, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel alarmed. Yet with a few preparations, you can minimize the damage and make sure that you aren’t bothered by these intrusions into your privacy and perhaps your freedom of use.
Do you have any other thoughts on this subject? Any fears or concerns that you would like to discuss with like-minded individuals? If so, please leaving a comment below, as we would love to hear what you would have to say. We hope that you adequately prepare yourself and that you can make the best decisions for you and your household in the future.
Bio: Kevin Conner is the founder and CEO of Vast Bridges, a customer acquisition and lead generation company in the home services arena. Since 2011 more than 10M consumers and businesses have used Vast Bridges’ web properties to search for Internet and TV service. Most recently he and a small team have launched broadbandsearch.net, the U.S.’s leading home services (broadband and TV) search engine.