Updated August 1st, 2019
The internet is the cornerstone of daily life. We do our shopping, send important documents and share personal details about ourselves and loved ones online. It's often said that if you follow good online practices, no one will have access to your online activities, but this isn't the case.
Having a strong password, avoiding internet scams, and antimalware software can protect you from unauthorized snooping by hackers, but that does protect your information from being gathered by most businesses.
Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) connects you to the internet for a price that not so secretly includes letting them track everything you do online. Some information is needed by your ISP to direct you where you want to go on the internet, but most of the information they take is purely to sell to data partners.
Using a VPN with a "no logs>" policy is a simple way to keep your data secret.
What Information Can Your ISP See?
If you don't use a privacy tool like the Tor browser or a VPN when you connect to the internet, then your ISP can see a lot of what you do online, potentially everything. If the websites you visit happen to be insecure then you can assume your ISP sees everything.
Here are a few things you can be certain your ISP knows.
Your IP address
In order to connect you to the internet, your ISP needs a unique identifier for you on their network. This is your IP address and it ties your online activities with your real-life location.
Every website you visit
Just knowing where you are isn't all the information your ISP needs to make the internet work, they also need to know which websites you want to visit. This information is immensely valuable because it shows advertisers exactly what you're interested in.
What you are doing on a website
If the website you're using doesn't have "https" are the beginning of the URL then it is lacking the latest standard of security, and every action you take on the website is visible to your ISP. Including the content of your messages if they aren't protecting with additional encryption.
Your downloads and torrents
It should be obvious at this point that if you download directly from a website your ISP can see that downloading something. They might even be able to tell what you're downloading. Using torrents with a program like, BitTorrent, will help keep your ISP from knowing what you're downloading but they will still know you're torrenting.
Your Internet History Is Important
So what if your ISP tracks everything you do online? And so what if they sell that data?
The answer to these questions it's important to remember that in the internet age information is king. No information is arbitrary because even the smallest adds something to the profile companies build on you.
Consumer profiles let companies know how best to target you with their message, which isn't always just for small things like selling you Coke over Pepsi.
By now most everyone is aware of the data scandal between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. For those that don't The Great Hack on is now Netflix so you should check it out for a refresher. (If it's not available in your region NordVPN is the best joins to get connected to US Netflix.) The film does a great job showing just how much power and money is generated by your information.
Everything from the pages liked, to the results of silly Hogwarts House quizzes were used by Cambridge Analytica to secure favorable outcomes for the Trump and Brexit campaigns.
ISP haven't had their own major scandal yet, but it's only a matter of time. The profiles they have on their customers are so much more expensive potentially containing everything they do online. It is hard to imagine they or their partners haven't been getting their money's worth from it.
Can You Control How Your ISP Uses Your Information?
Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to control what your ISP does with your data once they have it. The easiest way to protect your data would be through regulation, but so far the laws are lacking.
Some of the biggest online companies are based in the US so a lot of internet traffic through there.
During the final days of the Obama Administration, the FCC was given the power to protect net neutrality and this came with protections for consumer's private data. Under the Trump Administration, the FCC reversed course and scrapped the regulations and protections.
Across the Atlantic things are only slightly better. In the EU the GDPR has required that companies take greater care with your handling data, but selling your data is not illegal if it were Facebook and Google would go out of business.
Keep Your ISP From Tracking You
The best way to keep your ISP from selling your data is to prevent them from gathering information on you, to begin with. And masking your internet activities is as easy as connecting to a reliable VPN.
With a VPN, the only thing your ISP will see is that you are connected to the VPN service. Everything that you do after connecting is only between you and your VPN provider. The top VPN providers know that privacy is a top concern for their customers so they have policies against keeping any logs of your activities.
A VPN works as a mediator between you and the open internet. It prevents the websites you visit from snooping out your real IP address because they only get the IP address of the VPN server. The VPN provider then directs the web content to you.