How to Protect Your Privacy When Your ISP Sells Your Data

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Privacy rules have changed significantly for internet service providers (ISPs) in recent years. Under current law, your ISP is allowed to sell your browsing habits to advertisers, and it doesn’t have to let you know about it. Critics of the new rules claim that this will undermine our privacy, and it overturns the previous rules that gave us more control of our personal information.

When President Obama was in office, the FCC passed rules that said an ISP can access their customer’s online data, but it would have to get permission before getting information such as location services, browser history, health inquiries, and financial information.

Since 2017, however, when Congress and the Trump administration revoked these rules, ISPs have had the right to access and sell your browsing information and location data without asking for your permission.

Why Data Privacy Rules Changed

How did all of this happen? Well, it comes down to politics. Think of Google and Facebook for a minute. These companies have mountains of data on all of us, but these companies are not ISPs, so they are not subject to these rules. This also means that ISPs want to get their hands on the data that companies such as Google and Facebook have.

Over the past few years, Democrats and Republicans have clashed over privacy rules pertaining to ISPs and online platforms such as Google and Facebook. This means that your privacy has become the collateral damage of a nasty partisan political skirmish.

How Can You Protect Your Data?

Though the FCC has vowed to keep our data safe, history shows us that if large corporations want information badly enough and they have the government on their side, they will get what they want. Thanks to these rules, companies like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T can track the browsing habits of anyone, and then sell that information to the companies that want it. Fortunately, there are things you can do.

ISPs still can't see everything you do online. As long as websites you visit are secure (i.e., they begin with "https"), your ISP can only see the web domain, but not the specific pages you visit within that domain.

Use a New ISP

One of the things that you can do is simply change to a new ISP. Smaller ISPs are taking a stand and opposing these rules. These companies including Cruzio Internet, Sonic, and Etheric Networks. The problem, however, is that most of us don’t have the choice to switch to these companies. In fact, most Americans are stuck with either one or two options. Even if you wanted to change, you couldn’t.

Keep Your Data Protected

Your ISP is in a position to snoop on you at any time. Anything you do online has to go through your ISP. Though you can’t totally cut out the ISP from what you are doing, there are some ways you can hide your data before sending it across the internet. For instance, you can use an app with encryption, which will encrypt your information throughout the entire process. This means that your ISP will see the information go by but won't be unable to understand it.

Use Secure Chat

You can also consider a secure chat app. This will not only keep internet chats safe from hackers and the government, but also from the ISP you are using. Make sure that these apps have open-source security measures, and have support from experts.

Set Up a VPN 

You can also choose to set up a VPN, or virtual private network. Anyone can set these up, and they encrypt the data that passes through the ISP. Your ISP will still be doing the work to push your data around, but it won’t be able to understand anything. Some VPNs are free and others require a fee, though they are usually pretty affordable. Most of the good VPNs will require an annual subscription.

The other thing to consider is that though you are hiding your data from some, including your ISP, you are not hiding it from your VPN. So, you have to make sure that you are choosing a VPN that is trustworthy. Hotspot Shield is a good option. Fortunately, most of them do a great job of keeping their customers happy.

Opt Out of the Rules

With these new rules in place, ISPs can, by default, not only track but also can sell your browsing information. However, they also have to give customers a way to opt out. They were extremely unclear about how to do this in the past, so we can assume they will do the same in the future.

For instance, AT&T to uses consumers' CPNI — the data it collects from its customers — to place strategic, personalized advertising when people use its connection. The company is very transparent in their use of this, claiming that it allows them to "deliver a more personalized experience." Those who are not interested in such an experience are able to opt out of this targeted advertising.

AT&T isn't the only company to doing this, though. Verizon tried to inject “supercookies” into the traffic of its mobile customers, which then allowed the company to track behavior. Even if people were clearing their history and cookies, or browsing incognito, Verizon could still see the information thanks to these “supercookies.” The FCC eventually sued Verizon for $1.35 million for not getting permission from its customers to track them.

You can contact your ISP to request that it keep your personal data and browsing habits private.

More About VPNs

Because VPNs are one of the best ways to protect yourself and your data from these new rules, you should really learn as much as you can about them.

A VPN will disguise the information you send on the internet through your phone, computer, or another device when it tries to make contact with a website. VPNs also encrypt the information you are sending across the internet so that the info cannot be read by any company that might intercept it, including your ISP.

How to Choose a Trustworthy VPN

However, as mentioned above, there is also a bit of an issue. Any VPN that you choose has access to your browser data and behavior. This means you have to choose a VPN that is trustworthy. Generally, you should avoid a free VPN or it at least should have a paid upgrade option. Remember, if you are not paying for it, the company is still making money off of you.

The downside of using some VPNs is that it might slow down the internet speed that you currently have.

How VPNs Work

If you are going to use a VPN, you might be interested to know how they work. When you use one, and all of your transmissions are secure, the data is sent across the internet through “tunnels.” There are four protocols that VPNs use:

  • Transport layer and secure sockets layer security
  • Secure shell
  • Layer 2 tunneling
  • Point-to-point tunneling

Transport layer security and secure sockets layer are generally used by online service providers and online retailers. This is called the “handshake method.” Basically, when a secure session starts, the website encryption keys are exchanged, and this creates a secure connection.

With secure shell, the data is sent through a tunnel that is encrypted, though the data itself is not encrypted. All of the data that is sent from one point to another has to go through ports on a remote server in order to keep it safe.

Layer 2 tunneling helps to create a secure VPN, though again, the data isn’t encrypted. With this method, a tunnel is created, and then a series of checks, security, and encryption points ensure that the channel is not compromised.

Point-to-point tunneling is usually workable with all operating systems. These tunnels are not encrypted, but that doesn’t mean that they aren't secure.

All of this sounds quite technical, so don’t worry about fully understanding it. Just choose a VPN and then let it do all the work for you. A VPN will secure your communications online.

A Note on Tor

Finally, you might have heard of Tor. This browser creates software that will prevent people from tracking which sites you visit and from learning where people are located. Tor does this by pushing web traffic through a number of relays, which are controlled by volunteers across the globe.

Tor can be a bit difficult to set up, and it adds a bit of complexity to browser sessions. You also might experience slower internet speeds. Because of all of this, if you aren’t a little tech savvy, Tor is probably not for you. Many people say that Tor is the best option for those wanting to protect their information from both ISPs and the government. Tor is free and can hide you extremely well. You can install it on your computer’s desktop, or use it for Android devices. Before taking the leap and using Tor, keep these things in mind:

  • Tor is not available for iPhones.
  • A VPN will give more comprehensive protection than Tor, meaning it will protect you from going from one site to another.
  • Tor only works when you are using the specific Tor browser, even if it is on your device. Once you are not using the Tor browser, your information is exposed.
  • Tor is not usable with Cloud Flare security software. Because Cloud Flare is used on the majority of websites out there for security, you will have to deal with CAPTCHA security checks frequently.