It is well-known that social media companies track and sell our personal data, but Facebook and Instagram aren’t the only businesses watching your online activity.
An even more common way our data is collected, but isn’t as well known, is directly through our internet service providers (ISPs). Since we access the internet by subscribing to a specific ISP, our internet provider is able to track everything we do online.
How ISPs use your data
Online tracking includes which websites we visit, how long we visit them for, what we choose to stream, what devices we use, where we live, what we are emailing about and more. And ISPs use this information in likely more ways than you are aware of.
Even if you are not concerned about your online privacy, it is important to know to what extent you are being watched and how your data could be used against you.
Government agencies can track you
You might be thinking that the U.S. government should step in and regulate ISPs’ data tracking. However, that is not likely to happen anytime soon considering the U.S. government actually requires ISPs to retain the data it collects on you for a set period of time.
This way, if the government decides it wants to do a background check on you, all it has to do is contact your ISP to access all of your online data. This means that any information your ISP might have on you, government agencies, including the police, can gain access to as well.
ISPs profit from your data
ISPs are not just collecting your online activity to comply with the government; they also have their own motives for tracking your data. The main reason is that ISPs can profit from selling off your data to advertisers.
If you receive targeted ads when you are online, this is because your ISP has sold your data to outside companies. Because of ISPs, advertisers are able to apply your data to complex algorithms that analyze your buying and internet browsing behavior. Through these algorithms, advertisers learn how to best market to you so that you will buy what they present to you online.
According to a recent study released by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), many ISPs sell data to third parties that include information of users’ race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, political affiliations and religious beliefs.
In addition to personal demographic information, many ISPs also collect data regarding a person’s online activity, including browsing data, television viewing history, email content, search history, and location data. Many ISPs can even share subscribers’ real-time location data to third parties.
According to the report, this data could be harmful to subscribers since it can be used be used by “property managers, bail bondsmen, bounty hunters, or those who would use it for discriminatory purposes.”
ISPs can track data usage and throttle your speeds
Although not all ISPs impose data caps, many do and they are able to shut off your internet or slow down your internet speeds, known as speed throttling, by tracking your online use. This means that ISPs will know if you are watching hours of Netflix or downloading new video games to your gaming console.
Many ISPs claim to throttle internet speeds in order to help prevent network congestion, but in reality, most do it to incentivize customers to upgrade to higher speed plans with larger data caps. This is just another way ISPs use customer data to earn an extra buck.
This is not as invasive a form of data tracking but it still is incredibly frustrating for customers who are told they have unlimited data but, in reality, are having their speeds throttled each month once they reach a certain threshold.
How to limit data tracking
While you may not have an issue with having such limited online privacy, it is important to have a full understanding of just how much a company or agency can know about you from your online activity. This will allow you to make more informed decisions about when you might want to use the internet in a more private setting.
Using a VPN
The best way to prevent your ISP from tracking your personal data is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN, encrypts an online user’s personal data so that ISPs and other corporations are unable to access your online activity or even decipher your IP address. This means that your ISP will be unable to sell any personal data that is logged on the VPN.
Many companies use a VPN, for instance, to prevent classified information from being leaked outside of the company. The best part of the VPN is that it enables users from multiple computers and locations to have access to the network so that anyone on the VPN can still share information with the people they trust. This is able to occur because a VPN exists across a public network that anyone with the correct codes can access.
As the world becomes increasingly digital, privacy becomes more challenging to obtain. Unknown to many, ISPs are one of the leaders in tracking online data. They are not only required to provide the information they collect on their users to the government, but they also often sell it to agencies to make an extra profit. Agencies then use this data to determine what to market to you online.
The only way to prevent your data from being collected and used to target you online is to encrypt your online activity through a VPN. Although many think using incognito mode is sufficient for keeping their activity private, this is not actually the case. Even in incognito mode, your ISP is still able to track your personal data.
You are not obligated to be concerned about your online privacy. However, if there is online activity you would like to keep to yourself, then taking the extra step of using a VPN is a great idea. At the end of the day, we are all entitled to a certain level of privacy. We just have to work a little harder to maintain it in today’s world.
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Written by:Ari Howard
Associate Writer, Broadband & Wireless Content
Ari Howard is a staff writer Healthline and spent two years as a writer on the Allconnect team. She specialized in broadband news and studies, particularly relating to internet access, digital safety, broadband-… Read more
Edited by:Robin Layton
Editor, Broadband Content
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