Things You Ought to Know About Your ISP

The government is at it again, Congress repealed the FCC Privacy Rules that protected your personal data from your ISP and Trump rubber-stamped it… If you haven’t read those rules, and I don’t blame you if you haven’t, you probably don’t know what all this nonsense is about? The rules adopted on October 27th, 2016 acknowledged that broadband internet access service (BIAS) is a telecommunications service and that Internet Service Providers (ISP) are obliged to protect customer’s private information. The rules specifically prohibit ISPs from sharing your data without your permission and curtail take-it-or-leave-it service contracts.

Why care about your ISP?

Your ISP has access to absolutely everything you do online, including your name address and billing information. And you thought Google, Facebook and the NSA were bad? Well, they are, but with some crucial differences:

  • Google and Facebook are websites you are free to use or not and they must go to great length to incite you to share information about yourself; but you can choose not to. For example Google and Facebook know when you access their website and from where, but they don’t generally know of other sites you are visiting, at least not directly. In contrast, your ISP knows about every site you access, not unlike the NSA…
  • The NSA collects absolutely everything we do, but, being a government entity, it isn’t at all interested in selling your personal data for monetary gain.
  • Your ISP on the other hand exists solely for monetary purposes, and worst of all, in many parts of the country you might not even have a choice which company to use, so you can’t vote with your wallet. No wonder then, that industry groups are heavily lobbying to repeal the FCC Privacy Rules, making it easier for them to profit not only from the ridiculously high subscription fees (those are much lower for better service in other parts of the world, Europe for example) but also from selling your personal information to the highest bidder for advertising or other nefarious purposes, double dipping so to speak…

What’s more…

Reading through those FCC Rules it is quite clear that the FCC knows what’s at stake, as it laboriously defines every item worth consideration from customer acquisition, via Internet network architecture, packet contents to what happens to accumulated data after a customer decides to leave a BIAS, it’s all there. So, when the US government discusses repealing these rules, they know exactly what they are doing, putting an ISP’s profit over your, the customer’s and tax payer’s, privacy.

It is also pretty clear who benefits from this ruling, nobody other than the major ISPs in this country. You will probably read a lot of confusing nonsense about edge providers, or about ISPs claiming that they see less than everything you do online, which is surprisingly true, because they don’t see what you do when you are connected through a different provider (then the other provider sees and sells that, oh crap). However, it doesn’t change the fact that your ISP sees all traffic coming from and going to your IP address and and they want to make opting out of their private data collection as difficult as possible, besides collecting your personal data in yet another 100% secure and absolutely non-hackable database, right….

What can we do?

May I suggest “Wholesale Panic” and “blanket noncooperation”?

The obvious answer is to call your congressman and express your concerns. While that might be successful, most people won’t care enough about the issue to take action…

A safer approach is to take matters into your own hands and start using a VPN, that way you and I don’t depend on the government suddenly start making the right decisions. I have written about VPNs at length, from describing what they are, their pros and cons, alternative technologies, to reviews to give you some tools to decide which of the providers may be the best choice for you. Interestingly I wrote those articles with a focus on privacy regarding the NSA, which is, I am happy to tell you, a lot more difficult to accomplish that hiding your Internet activity from your everyday ISP.

While your ISP has access to all of your Internet activities you can easily install a VPN on your home router and encrypt everything going through that router, making it impossible for your ISP to see any more than the amount of traffic coming from and going to your IP address; game over.

What’s the drawback?

It costs money and may impact your Internet speeds. While it is true that there are free VPNs, even ones build directly into browsers, there is no such thing as free. If you don’t pay for a service, you are the product and not the customer. See Google’s business model… I have found very few exceptions to this rule.

I have used VPNs for years, primarily to protect my personal data when traveling. Some of us have to work and can’t afford spilling our private and business information all over the Internet. To protect my privacy I have used a lot of different VPNs, many of which don’t even exist anymore. When it comes to VPNs I have two clear favorites:

I have IP Vanish installed on my router at home and it works great. While setting it up yourself isn’t all that difficult, they offer routers with their VPN pre-installed for those not technically inclined.

IPVanish (US)

IPVanish is reliable, fast, and anonymous. They use 256-bit AES encryption and keep no logs of user activity. You can subscribe to their VPN for 10 USD/month or less if you subscribe to a longer term. Any subscription is good for up to 5 devices per account.

Tunnelbear (Canada)

Tunnelbear is the other VPN I am really fond of and not just because of their cute animations. It is installed on all of my mobile devices. Tunnelbear offers fast, reliable connections with 256-bit AES encryption for up to 5 devices. Pricing is the same as for IPVanish and 10 USD/month get you connected, but their yearly subscription is significantly cheaper than IPVanish.

Why two VPNs?

You don’t need two! However, I found that when traveling sometimes one VPN will just not work, but the other provider works just fine. This could be caused by a multitude of reason and I just don’t want to spend the time troubleshooting it. When I am at 36,000 feet and paying USD 14.95 for an already crappy Internet connection I just want to get things done and not have to deal with technical support.

What if I don’t want to use a VPN?

I looked at HTTPS-Everywhere, and while that encrypts your connection with the target website, it doesn’t hide the URL you are navigating to from your ISP, leaving you just as exposed as before, you ISP will still see you heading to your favorite adult entertainment site, just not what you are doing once you get there….

Installing the Opera Browser is another option, and while Opera is the product of a European company its parent company is Chinese and I am not sure how comfortable I am with that. The Chinese copy everything, except for human rights…. The other drawback of Opera is that it, by design, only protects what you are doing within the browser, so everything else, downloading email for example, is still quite visible to your ISP making it, at best, only a partial solution.

Another great option is to install Tor, also know as The Onion Router. Tor, just like a VPN, establishes an encrypted connection between you and another server somewhere online, making it impossible for your ISP to know what you are doing. Unfortunately, while Tor is free,  just like with the Opera browser only what you do within the Tor browser is hidden from your ISP, again, only a partial solution.

In Summary…

Unless you plan on ditching your ISP and/or mobile provider and crawling back under some rock chances are your Internet activities will be sold to the highest bidder. Sadly, after reading this far you probably know more about what’s at stake than the people who just sold us out.

The best defense against their nefarious tactics is to install a VPN on your home router and all of your mobile devices. HTTPS, Tor and Opera will work, but have serious limitations. Then of course there is your new home under that rock you’ve had your eyes on….

Whatever your choice, its worth considering what is at stake. Do you really want your ISP to be able to sell your Health Insurance company your Google searches so that they have better data to deny you coverage? An extreme example, for sure, but not an impossible one, and just maybe, they are already getting this information from Google… We’re screwed!

Screwed maybe, but not dead yet.

Thanks for reading and happy surfing!

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