What Your ISP Knows About Your Browsing Habits

ISP tracking

ISP tracking is nothing new, but most people don’t realize just how much their Internet Service Provider knows about their browsing habits. Even when you turn on options like Do Not Track in your browser, your ISP is still watching you. Privacy isn’t important to them, but there are ways to go online and still maintain your privacy.

Your ISP Spies on You

Your ISP spies on you every time you open a browser window. For mobile devices, your provider even monitors your call and text logs along with app usage, though they don’t retain copies of the actual texts or calls.

While most providers aren’t going to readily tell you what they’ve collected on you, it’s still kind of terrifying to think there’s a strange third party that knows all about your Internet activity.

In a memo discussed on Wired, the four major telecoms listed how long they kept your data. Verizon kept information the longest, with IP session details and text message details staying on their servers for a year.

ISP tracking is based on IP addresses and DNS, which means you’re tracked based on numbers assigned to you by your ISP and their network. Unless location or GPS tracking is enabled, your exact location isn’t known either. Naturally, your ISP knows your address so they can send you a bill.

The most common information ISPs collect include:

  • URLs of the websites you visit
  • Which pages you visit on a website
  • What time you connect
  • How long you spend online and on individual web pages

Related Read: 7 Ways Mobile Apps Compromise Privacy

ISP Tracking in Action

Your ISP isn’t just sitting around monitoring your every keystroke. Instead, tracking occurs when you request a connection over the network. When you enter a URL into your browser, your computer needs the right IP address before sending you to the requested website. Your browser sends a DNS (domain name system) query to obtain the IP address and connect you to the website.

Your ISP sees every request made to the DNS, which is a public directory. It’s important to note that even with encrypted connections, your ISP sees the query before the connection is encrypted. This is because DNS queries are rarely encrypted.

Think of ISP tracking this way. If you’re using their service to connect to the Internet to visit websites, check your email, watch videos, use apps, or anything else online, your ISP knows where you’re going and has an idea of what you’re doing.

Using Your Data for Profit

The big question is why would your ISP want to track you anyway. The answer is simple – profit. Your ISP works kind of the same way that Google does. By monitoring your searches, Google’s able to show you targeted ads, which you’ll be more likely to click.

Until recently, most data collected was only ever used if it was requested by law enforcement. Your ISP could still sell general usage statistics and demographic details. However, some ISPs partner with advertisers to store cookies on browsers to collect more in-depth usage data. These advertisers claim none of the data is tied to individual IP addresses, which could identify you.

However, ISPs typically won’t store details on web browsing histories and email contents because it’s too expensive to do so. The only people who are constantly monitored are those suspected of a crime by law enforcement. In some European countries, ISPs are required by law to save email contents for up to two years.

In April 2017, President Trump repealed online privacy rules that required ISPs to get your permission before selling your details. This gives ISPs more freedom to use any collected information to profit from advertisers. At the time, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast stated they wouldn’t sell user information.

Related Read: Net Neutrality Explained in Simple Terms

Limit Your ISP’s Reach

If ISP tracking is something you’d prefer to avoid, you do have some options. The first thing you can do is visit secured sites that use HTTPS and have valid security certificates. The only thing your ISP might see is the name of the site you visit, but not much else. You can force HTTPS on sites that don’t use it with the HTTPS Everywhere extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera.

Another option is to connect to the Internet with a VPN. While this is recommended for any public Wi-Fi, it also limits what your ISP sees on your home connection.

You could also use a special browser focused on privacy. For instance, the Tor browser is an open source browser that helps block your location and browsing habits from your ISP.

Social Media Works Against You Too

ISP tracking is the only thing you have to worry about when it comes to your privacy. Social media and search engines love to track you too. For instance, after you get done on Amazon, you’ll usually see a few ads on Google or Facebook about the items you viewed. This infographic shows just how much Google knows about you as you use various Google products.

According to Facebook’s privacy policy, data you provide could be used to help Facebook profit. Every time you “Like” a page or post, provide details about hobbies/interests, list where you are, and provide other information, you’re giving Facebook more in-depth details to sell to advertisers.

Limiting interactions and the details you share are just a few ways to limit what Facebook knows. It’s also important to remember that every time you log in with Facebook on other sites, you’re sharing your details with those sites too.

If you tend to stay logged in to Facebook and Google while online, both Internet giants are tracking your browsing history. They do it to provide more personalized ads and experiences. The only to stop this is to simply log out of both unless you’re using them. For instance, you can search with Google without being signed in.

Alternately, open an Incognito window in your browser for a little more privacy. Even if you’re signed in to Google or Facebook in a normal window, an Incognito window is like starting completely fresh.

ISP tracking and social tracking aren’t dangerous in most cases, but you should always think about your privacy online.

Related Read: Go Incognito in Google Chrome


Contribution by Crystal Crowder

About the Author

Crystal lives and breathes tech. She’s spent over a decade writing tutorials, reviews, and more on tech, business, and lifestyle sites. Her idea of fun is settling down with the latest tech and gadget news.