Many of us forget about the role of ISPs while we use the web. But that’s quite surprising when you take into account the vital role they play.
ISPs lie in the background of everything we do online. If information passes to or from our computers or smartphones, it must also pass through ISP servers. This places service providers in an incredibly powerful position – at least in theory.
So what information do internet service providers hold about us and should we be worried? This blog will set out the current situation, assess whether we should be concerned, and lay out some possible countermeasures for net users to employ.
What kind of data do ISPs hold about their customers?
Firstly, it’s important to note the legal situation in the UK regarding ISPs. Since 2016’s Investigatory Powers Act was passed by Parliament, ISPs have been required by law to hold a year’s worth of browsing records for all of their customers.
This law has met with a serious challenge from civil liberties campaigners and still has not been fully implemented.
However, don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. The fact that the government felt able to sequester in-depth browsing information from ISPs suggests that the ISPs themselves have the scope to monitor almost everything we do online. If this worries you, be sure to check out our rundown of reliable and well rated VPN service and find a reliable provider.
How far do ISP powers extend? You may be surprised
- Your ISP can and does record every single website you visit, linking this to the customer account used to purchase the internet connection. This information isn’t routinely held to satisfy government officials, but to commodify and sell onto third parties. And it can also be used to analyse the ISP’s systems, helping to optimise the services they deliver.
- Every byte of data you transfer is accounted for by ISPs. This is usually related to monitoring data usage by customers, enabling companies to implement pricing policies and enforce restrictions.
- Many ISPs may also have access to the content of your emails and your activity on certain websites. If the sites or email provider you use are unencrypted, it’s not hard for ISPs to keep a record of what you write and even where your mouse cursor travels. Many websites are now secured via HTTPS, but if they aren’t there’s no reason to think your ISP isn’t watching.
All of this information can be collected by internet service providers. The key development here seems to be the commodification of data – and ISPs are trying to cash in big-time.
For example, if companies can track the online activity of millions of people, they can learn about their healthcare situations, the places they seek to travel (or dream about travelling), the sports teams they support, the dating sites they use, and the fashion labels they love. All of this data is gold-dust for marketers – especially when it’s linked to IP addresses.
ISP data collection: Should we be worried?
We’re constantly told that we live in the age of Big Data and that we should embrace data collection and tracking for the greater good. But there are many reasons to shield yourself from ISP data collection.
Firstly, there’s the principle. Our data is created by ourselves and is a reflection of the choices we make. Why should middlemen be able to take it and make money from the lives we live, giving us nothing but sluggish internet connections in response?
Secondly, there’s a civil liberties concern to think about. As the court case around the UK’s RIPA shows, governments want to accumulate surveillance powers and are happy to deputise ISPs in their quest to do so.
And we should also be worried about what happens when personal data is stolen. Criminals would love to gain access to the in-depth browsing data held by ISPs, which would allow them to mount detailed phishing attacks, or carry out identity thefts with ease.
Take action to counteract ISP data collection
So we’re not talking about a minor issue here. ISP data collection could have huge real-world consequences. But what can consumers do in response?
Firstly, it’s important to stay informed and track which ISPs are committed to putting privacy first, instead of selling data. We’re likely to see plenty of UK ISPs exposed as data brokers in the future, so avoid those companies like the plague.
More importantly, it helps to source tools from the best VPN services. Virtual Private Networks will encrypt your data and anonymize your IP address, making it hard for ISPs to know anything about you (and heading off government snoopers).
Check out our list of the best VPN services linked to above, and be prepared to take action to defend your privacy.