What your ISP knows about you
Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) is in business to provide Internet access, not to protect your privacy online.
When it comes to inquiries by law enforcement agencies, ISPs are all to quick to throw their hands up and surrender whatever it is Big Brother is looking for. Just look at Comcast, who said in 2006 that it would retain records of online activity for all of its customers for up to six months. Qwest, an American telecommunications service provider founded in 1996, actually admitted that political efforts to force broadband providers into retaining user data was a good thing.
Police and prosecutors all over the United States are interested in forcing ISPs to retain historical data in efforts to increase felony convictions. The International Association of Chiefs of Police Congress is even pushing for ISPs to keep records of user activity for up to two years, including IP addresses, emails and logs of websites visited. The government claims its data retention warpath is being created in the name of thwarting terrorism and child pornography. The reality of the matter is that they want to be able to monitor everyone and everything online. Whether the government forces them to do it or not, it is clear that ISPs are capable of tracking and logging every move you make online.
Most Internet Service Providers record every web page you visit, how long you visit particular websites and even what downloads you make. Your emails, the sending addresses you use and email recipients are also logged. Many ISPs make backups of incoming email which are stored in remote locations supposedly for “security” and other purposes. Although ISPs like AOL, Earthlink, Microsoft and Yahoo are fighting desperately against Congress passing any new data retention laws, these efforts are not designed to protect your privacy. They are intended to fight against the financial burden caused by having to log and store so much user data for extended periods of time.
Verizon has even gone so far as to argue that deep packet inspection of all URLs accessed would violate the Wiretap Act, but that doesn’t stop Uncle Same from trying to push new legislation to spy on everyone that surfs online. If the FBI got its way, every ISP would be required to track and store user visits by IP address, domain name, host name and even by URLs visited.
Despite the resistance to government-backed tracking, there are many ISPs out there who secretly sell clickstream data. Again, ISPs are in the business to make money so, just like every money-grubbing hustler on the street, ISPs will hock customer data anywhere they can just to make a quick buck. Some ISPs earn as much as $5 a month per user by selling their clickstreams to marketers. Although most won’t admit it, at least AT&T and CenturyTel have fessed up to selling customer data in some form, aggregated or otherwise.
When you send an email, you might as well be sending your message on a postcard. Unless you encrypt the message before sending it, anyone along the path from your computer to email’s recipient can view it. The same goes for visiting websites. Although your credit card details may be transmitted securely when using an encryption method such as Secured Sockets Layer (SSL), this doesn’t stop your ISP from logging the fact that you made a purchase at a particular website. They can track every URL you visit at sites like Amazon and Ebay. They can even track everywhere you post blogs and everywhere you upload photos. Why you may not think this is a problem now, just wait until one day your name comes up because other suspicious persons were using the same Internet provider you were. Do you really want the burden of explaining your case to the cops or would you prefer to never show up on the radar in the first place?
The best way to go about preserving your privacy and protecting your online activities is to make use of a VPN service. A VPN service functions as a private tunnel through the Internet, encrypting all of your sent and received data without your local ISP being privy to any of it. When you use a VPN service, your sent data is encrypted before being transmitted online. After encryption, it is then passed through your ISP to a VPN proxy server, which passes it on to its final destination on your behalf. The same process works in reverse for received data. In both cases, your local ISP has no access to your data or your data’s destinations. Your ISP only knows that you are connected to the VPN and nowhere else.
While it may be your ISPs job to make money offering Internet access, it is your job to insure your online privacy. Making use of a VPN service protects you from having your vital details tracked, logged and sold all over the online world.