An ISP, or Internet Service Provider, is the company that connects you to the Internet. Think of your ISP as the local mailman in the international postal service that is the Internet. Naturally, the mailman will see the addresses from which you receive data as well as those to which you send information. But that doesn’t mean that he’s reading your mail, does it? You might be surprised how much of your online activity your ISP sees, tracks, and even stores. Keep reading to find out how your ISP is invading your privacy and what you can do to protect your online data.
IP Addresses: Knowledge Is Power
To deliver information successfully, your ISP must know your IP (Internet Protocol) address along with the addresses you contact. In theory, ISPs only gather metadata, which includes information like port numbers and IP addresses. However, this information can reveal plenty about you—IP addresses can tell your ISP the websites you’ve visited, to whom you’ve sent email, and more. They claim to track where you send information because they have to, but they deny actually examining the content. Whether they actually look at your data is unclear, but one thing is certain: they have the ability to do so.
The Records ISPs Keep
The frightening thing about ISPs is how opaque their internal affairs are because they are private companies. In other words, no one is really sure how much subscriber data they store and how long they keep it. At a minimum, they have a log of each website you’ve visited and when, and how long you spent interacting with it.
Technically, this information is anonymous because it is associated with an IP address, not an individual. In reality, though, ISPs keep track of the IP addresses they assign to subscribers, so your identity is readily discoverable. Your ISP then knows who you are, the sites you view, and with whom you communicate. All this information remains on your ISP’s servers for a minimum of six months and a maximum of one to two years.
Government Access to ISP Data
The Edward Snowden debacle revealed many unsettling things about the government’s privacy practices, one of which concerned the government’s access to the data ISPs store. The Snowden controversy uncovered NSA access to metadata from almost anywhere in the world, which made many subscribers wonder just how cozy ISPs are with government entities.
Legally, law enforcement can only access information stored less than six months with a search warrant, and information stored longer than that with a subpoena or court order. However, the law also allows ISPs to voluntarily hand over “noncontent” data to law enforcement, which includes your IP address and the records of the sites you’ve visited.
Protecting Your Online Data from ISPs
By this point, you’re probably a little disconcerted by the privacy-invading power ISPs wield, and rightly so. The good news is that you can limit what your ISP sees of your online activity fairly easily.
First, understand what does not work. Internet users often mistakenly believe that using a browser’s “incognito” feature will create online anonymity to keep them safe from spies and hackers. In truth, incognito browser windows do nothing but prevent the browser itself from tracking and storing your information. Incognito mode will not stop your operating system, the websites you visit, wireless router, or ISP from logging your browsing data.
So what can you do to insulate your activity from ISPs? Hotspot Shield is the simplest and most reliable solution. It allows you to browse the web anonymously, without any record of your downloads, browsing activity, or even your IP address. Your ISP will see you communicating with Hotspot Shield’s server, so it cannot view the IP address assigned to you or the addresses of the people and sites with which you interact. The ISP sees only the amount of encrypted data coming and going from your device without the ability to view it.
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With all the secrecy that enshrouds how ISPs handle users’ information, it’s hard to determine exactly how compromised your privacy is. What’s certain, though, is that ISPs are able to see enough information to jeopardize security. The simple solution to this risk is Hotspot Shield, which essentially puts a blindfold over the prying eyes of ISPs.