They say your mother knows you best. After all, she’s been with you right from birth to adulthood. I, however, dare to disagree with this well-known fact by stating that ISPs might know you better than your mother. The question is, how? Before I get into the technical nuances, let’s start with the basics.
What is an ISP?
ISPs, or Internet Service Providers, are corporations or institutions that provide internet services to customers at a fee. They give all kinds of internet access be it DSL, dedicated high-speed interconnection, dial-up, cable modem or any other connection.
How Do ISPs Work?
The working of an ISP is quite simple. When you want to access a site on the internet, the browser of your access device converts the domain name of the said site into an IP address which is sent to the ISP, usually by a router. Your ISP will then convey your access request to the ISP of the site you intend to visit. The ISP of the site sends back a link through which you can access the site. ISPs can also pay other ISPs (upstream ISPs) to offer internet connectivity which usually has a more extensive network than your ISP.
Data and ISPs
Now that we are up to speed with ISPs, we have the hot button issue, that is, your data and ISPs. Are ISPs collecting your data? Are they spying on you? Can they provide your browsing history data to law enforcement/government? Can they sell your data to third-parties? Is there any way you can protect your data? A simple answer to all of the above questions is Yes, but it’s much more technical than you think. Let’s break it down for you.
First things first, your ISP has access to all the data you transmit or receive through the internet. With all this access, they track and monitor said data to observe how the information is being used, to provide security against cyber-attacks and to prevent the abuse or misuse of data. The service providers can, therefore, tell what sites you visit, how often you visit these sites, frequency of visits, and the duration you spend on the site. To be on the safe side choose a VPN service to encrypt your connection and protect your privacy. Check this review of Private Internet Access for a start.
Visits to unencrypted websites are akin to a data gold mine for the ISPs since it is in these instances that the ISPs get the most data from users. Unencrypted sites use Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) which is unencrypted as opposed to the much more secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTPS).
To put it simply, when you visit an unencrypted website, your ISP can view the full content of the site on visits and the complete URL. This is alarming, seeing as research confirms that 8 out of 10 lifestyle websites are unencrypted. The solution to this problem should be fairly straight forward – a transition from unencrypted to the more secure HTTPS. Well, not entirely since all third party associates and partners on the site must support HTTPS. For your reference, addresses of sites prefixed with ‘https’ mean that they are secure. Secure sights prevent the ISP from accessing the full content and or URL of the site in question. ISPs have been known to collect data, and over time create a detailed profile of someone’s internet activity.
In most cases, ISPs can’t be compelled to share the data they have collected over time on an individual, though it is common practice for some to sell data to advertisers and other third parties. In the US for instance, the law allows ISPs to share non-identifying data.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
Now that we have covered the nuances of ISP data dealings, a salient query is: do the subscribers of these ISPs have any way to protect their data and internet activity? It is noteworthy that private browsing features like incognito browsing don’t offer much respite as the ISP can still access one’s data. Google provides excellent add-ons, as does the EFF, that automatically convert HTTP to HTTPS in your web browser.
The magnum opus of internet security remains the VPN services. What VPNs do is they encrypt your internet traffic and activity, hence preventing your IP address from being accessed by anyone. With some of these VPNs, the user might incur additional charges, especially subscription-based VPNs. This is, however, a small price to pay for protection from over-ambitious ISPs.
Mothers are an embodiment of love, resilience, and most importantly, safety. ISPs on the other hand, not so much. Sadly, the latter might have in their possession more information about you than the former. Take the necessary step to ensure the ISPs don’t compromise your privacy and security.