If you still believe that ISPs aren't interested in tracking your Internet connection, we, unfortunately, will have to disappoint you.
In reality, there exist at least 4 reasons why tracking your online activities is very lucrative for ISPs, and why they’ll work every angle to dig into your sensitive data.
What Is ISP Tracking
ISP tracking is a process during which your ISP monitors and records your online activity.
That means that anything from your search history to email conversations is constantly tracked and logged by your Internet Service Provider.
While you may think that your Internet admin sits in the head office and manually checks each user’s connection, it’s not exactly what happens.
The process of monitoring and logging your online activity is usually fully automated, and therefore your ISP can simultaneously track hundreds of thousands users, including yourself.
Why Is Your ISP Tracking You
As we’ve already said, there are at least 4 reasons why your ISP might spy on your connection.
These are the following:
1. Retention of your data
Data retention is a common practice for ISPs throughout the world since they are usually obliged by law to log and store customer Internet data for a certain period of time.
This is done to give police and security agencies access to users’ personal information in case they need it to conduct inquiry procedures or even mass surveillance.
Though data retention may be important for tackling crimes and preventing acts of terrorism, oftentimes, such a practice heavily violates online privacy rights of ordinary citizens.
Moreover, it puts in danger independent journalists and whistleblowers since they may get deanonymized and become a subject of political harassment.
According to Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and publicly-known American whistleblower, ISPs remain one of the primary sources of data collection for NSA and other intelligence agencies around the world.
2. Selling your data to third parties
Selling customers’ personal data to advertising companies and other third parties is extremely profitable for Internet Service Providers these days, and that’s why they really bother to monitor your Internet traffic.
The thing is your online traffic contains a lot of details about your online browsing and shopping habits, which is really invaluable for marketers to send you “personalized” ads.
Given that marketers are willing to spend a good deal of money to get their hands on your personal data, ISPs will gladly sell it at the earliest opportunity.
What is worse, the practice of selling data is deemed acceptable in countries like the US, which means you won’t be able to protect your privacy rights even at courts.
3. Bandwidth throttling
Another reason why your Internet Service Provider may inspect your Internet traffic is bandwidth throttling.
Bandwidth throttling is a practice of slowing down your Internet speeds based on your online activities or services you use.
While ISPs often justify throttling your speeds by saying that it helps them reduce network congestion, in the majority of cases, they limit your connection bandwidth to make you subscribe for a more expensive Internet plan.
And since net neutrality laws have long gone into history, there is nothing except special tools that can prevent your ISP from doing that.
4. P2P monitoring
It is a well-known fact that in some countries where torrenting is prohibited by law, ISPs can also monitor your connection to see if you share files over P2P networks.
To find out whether you’re involved in torrenting, ISPs analyze patterns of your online behavior and perform deep packet inspection.
In case they catch you actively using torrenting software, at first, they will probably send you a couple of warning notices.
However, if you continue to torrent files despite the warnings, there is a high chance your ISP will pass your Internet activity logs to copyright agencies, and you’ll be required to pay massive fines.
In the worst-case scenario, you may even end up in a court.
Why Should You Be Concerned?
The answer is pretty simple – your online privacy is in danger, and your personal life may be exposed to complete strangers.
What is more, your sensitive details can be sold to third parties, which means you're going to be bombarded with "personalized" ads or even receive unwanted emails.
Due to ISP monitoring, you may also get into legal troubles or even end up in a court if you share files on a P2P connection, and if you love streaming media or playing games for many hours in a row, your bandwidth may often be throttled.
What Data Can ISPs See?
Since all traffic that you send and receive on the web is routed through your ISP servers, your Internet provider can monitor pretty much anything that you do online.
Things get even worse if you use some services that your ISP offers, for example, an email service.
The more personal information your ISP has access to, the more can be tracked.
But what exactly can your ISP see?
In case you visit an encrypted website (the one that starts with https://) your ISP can snoop on the following data:
- Your browsing history
- Websites you visit
- Specific web pages on those websites you open
- How much time you spend on those pages
- Your Internet browsing habits
- Your shopping habits
- Your geo-location
- Source & destination IP addresses
However, if you visit an unencrypted website (the one that starts with http://), your ISP will also be able to see:
- Unencrypted email conversations
- Passwords and form information
- Social media data
- Images or photos
- Voice messages
- Text logs
Except reading your browsing activities, ISPs can monitor files that you download using Torrent software, content than you stream and much more.
Do ISPs Keep Browsing History And For How Long?
Your ISP can see everything that you do on the web, meaning it can also track and keep (log) your browsing history.
Usually, ISPs retain your search history for at least 90 days.
Of course, you can take some measures to keep your browser history clean.
For example, you can:
- Use incognito mod
- Avoid tracking cookies with "Do not track mode" some browsers provide
- Use privacy extensions
And while some of these techniques can help you fight off advertisers or anyone who can use your device to view your history, they won't prevent your ISP from watching your every move.
How To Tell If Your ISP Is Tracking You?
Unfortunately, there is almost no way to tell when your ISP is tracking your Internet activities.
However, you may notice that all of a sudden, your connection speed starts to drop when you're streaming video or playing games, and then immediately gets back to normal when you’re doing something else.
That is called ISP content discrimination.
You may also notice that you started to see a lot of targeted display ads while surfing the Internet (your ISP might have sold your activity logs to marketers).
How To Hide Your Internet Activity From ISP
To block ISP tracking and finally hide online activity from your ISP, you have to use tools that will encrypt your online traffic and mask your digital identity.
Here are some of the best tools to do that:
1. Use a VPN
A virtual private network is a service that allows you to encrypt your online traffic, change your virtual location, mask your digital identity, and ultimately stop ISP tracking.
When using a VPN, all your Internet traffic is routed via a remote VPN server, which means nobody can analyze your data and see what you do on the web.
In addition, a virtual private network also changes your virtual location by assigning you an IP address different from that of your ISP.
As a result, your ISP can’t associate the new IP address with your digital identity, and therefore your online identity remains hidden.
However, there can be some exceptions when the data that you transmit may be protected only partially or not protected at all.
That often happens if you use free VPN services that don’t provide proper encryption or ensure all your personal data is protected by a strict no-log policy.
Such VPN services may also leak your real IP address.
Therefore, it is important to find a reliable VPN provider that can offer you all the core security features and even some advanced ones like, for example, Kill Switch or DNS/IP leak protection.
2. Use Tor
Tor is another solution that can help you encrypt your Internet traffic by routing it through multiple Tor network servers, also known as nodes or relays.
Those servers are located all around the world, which makes it impossible for ISPs to uncover your identity or keep tabs on what you do on the web.
However, there are 3 big downsides of Tor.
Firstly, it works only for Internet browsing.
Secondly, it restricts you only to those activities that don’t require high-speed connectivity.
Tor servers are quite slow, so you won’t be able to stream high-quality videos or do anything else like that.
Thirdly, Tor doesn’t encrypt your online traffic on the whole path to the website you visit, so your traffic gets decrypted on the way from the last node to the destination server.
This means anyone can exploit this weak spot to intercept your traffic and read your delicate data.
If you’re interested in learning more about the differences between Tor and VPN, you can read our Tor vs VPN article here.
3. Use a proxy
Some people also choose to route their traffic through proxies.
A proxy is an intermediary server between your device and the Internet.
The only purpose why people utilize proxies is that they allow them to access geo-restricted content.
However, if you’re more of a security-oriented person, dealing with a proxy is absolutely useless since it doesn’t encrypt your traffic or protect you from ISP monitoring.
If you want to learn more about the differences between a proxy and a VPN, check out our VPN vs Proxy article.
Can ISP Block A VPN?
In theory, an ISP can block a VPN by blocking IP addresses belonging to a certain VPN company or restricting access to specific communication ports or protocols.
However, when it comes to blocking communication ports and protocols, things become more complicated.
For example, an ISP can block the PPTP protocol because it runs on a single port and uses GRE packets.
At the same time, your ISP will be unable to block the OpenVPN protocol as it can run on any port and protocol (TCP/UDP).
Now, if you can't access the Internet when on a VPN connection, it can be that your ISP provider has really blocked your VPN.
To solve this problem, you can try switching to an advanced VPN protocol such as OpenVPN in case you're using PPTP or L2TP.
You can also change a VPN server or try obfuscated servers like, for example, those of SwitchVPN.
Wrapping Things Up
When it comes to preventing crimes or terrorist attacks, ISP tracking can, of course, be justified.
Meanwhile, it also becomes obvious that ISPs often overstep the mark of what is acceptable by violating your Internet privacy rights and intruding in your personal life.
Luckily, by using a VPN service like SwitchVPN, you can regain your Internet privacy rights and stop ISP from tracking your activities once and for all.
With SwitchVPN, you can be sure that everything you do online is your private business only.