Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can see everything you do online. They can track things like which websites you visit, how long you spend on them, the content you watch, the device you’re using, and your geographic location. Depending on where you are in the world, this information is used for a variety of purposes, including to build a consumer profile for sale to third-party advertisers or impose online censorship on behalf of governments.
Thankfully, there is a simple solution in the form of a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. This will encrypt all of the internet traffic running to and from your device and tunnel it through an intermediary server. This means that it’s unreadable to your ISP or anyone else snooping on your activity, such as network administrators, government agencies, or hackers.
A bonus of a VPN is that it masks your IP address and replaces it with another from a location of your choosing. This means you can bypass geo-restrictions on websites such as those offering streaming services, gaming, gambling, and more when traveling abroad.
In this post, we reveal the best VPN to prevent activity tracking and explain how to set it up. We’ll also reveal more about why ISPs and others track your activity and why you’d want to stop them.
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NordVPN is the best VPN in the industry for a host of reasons. It boasts a large network of more than 5,500 servers spanning 59 countries, so you won’t have issues finding a server in the appropriate location. This provider pegs the fastest speeds we’ve seen, so you won’t experience noticeable slowdowns with browsing, streaming HD video, or downloading.
This service offers best-in-class security, including 256-bit encryption and perfect forward secrecy. It comes with DNS leak protection and a kill switch to ensure your traffic never leaves the encrypted tunnel and remains unreadable to your ISP. NordVPN won’t log any personally identifiable information.
You can connect up to six devices simultaneously under each account. Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, and Android. It can even be configured to home routers so that every internet-connected device in your home is secured.
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How to use a VPN to prevent ISP monitoring
While a VPN might sound a bit complicated, getting started with one is actually very straightforward.
Here’s how to stop your ISP monitoring which websites you visit:
- Select a VPN provider that offers a service fitting for your needs. We recommend NordVPN but Surfshark and ExpressVPN are two excellent, low-cost alternatives.
- Submit your payment and make a note of your new username and password.
- Find the appropriate download for your device on the VPN provider website, and run the installation. Most have desktop clients for Windows and MacOS and mobile apps for Android and iOS.
- Launch the desktop client or mobile app, log in, and connect to a VPN server. The server location you choose will depend on your specific needs. For example, for fast browsing, you may want to connect to a geographically close server. For unblocking the US Netflix library, a US server is appropriate.
- You can now surf the web as you would normally, but your ISP won’t be able to monitor your traffic.
Note that many providers include startup options within their app settings. For example, you may be able to connect to the VPN every time you start your device. This way, you can ensure your ISP never has any data to log.
Can I use a free VPN to stop my ISP tracking my activity?
You may just be trading in one evil for another. Although you’ll come across a ton of free VPN services, these generally aren’t worth a second look. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case, from both a security and practical standpoint.
Free VPN services are well-known for tracking user activity, which is exactly what you’re looking to avoid. They’ll use tracked data to build user profiles and sell them to the highest bidder. Even if they don’t partake in this practice, chances are you’ll have to endure ads injected into the sites you visit by the VPN itself. This is far from the worst of it. Some free VPNs don’t encrypt your traffic at all and others carry malware. One provider even hijacked users’ idle bandwidth and used it to form a botnet.
As if poor security isn’t bad enough, things don’t get much better on the performance side. Free VPNs typically have a large number of users vying for space on a limited number of servers. This translates to queues to connect to servers and unreliable connections. You’ll likely endure slow page loading while browsing and buffering during streaming.
All-in-all, it just makes sense to opt for a reputable paid provider that gives you a secure and reliable service.
Why ISPs track your activity
Have you ever wondered if your internet provider knows which websites you visit? For many users, it seems normal that the providers of their internet service should be able to see everything they’re doing online. You might even suppose they need information about your internet traffic in order to provide you with the service in the first place. But this isn’t the case.
So why does your ISP want to see your browsing history? Well, there are a few potential reasons. No matter where you’re located, one or more of these will almost certainly be in play:
Data retention laws
In some countries, mandatory data retention laws stipulate that ISPs must track and record specific data about their users. This can include which websites you visit, emails, messages, searches, location, and operating system, among other things. The information could be used for various reasons, but governments will often claim that it’s for use by law enforcement for specific reasons, for example, as an anti-terror initiative.
In today’s world, data equates to dollars, often in the form of targeted advertising. If a company knows your browsing habits, they can figure out just about anything about your life, from where you bank, shop, and eat, to more personal information like your marital status, health issues, and even sexual preferences. ISPs make deals with advertisers and collect information on their behalf. Companies can then target you with relevant ads on the web pages you visit.
You’ll often hear advertisers stating that serving more relevant ads improves the user experience, although from a user standpoint this isn’t always the case. In fact, it can feel like a violation of privacy and even downright creepy when ads related to your browsing history pop up.
This is even more concerning when it’s not you, but your child who is being targeted. In fact, given that children influence the majority of household purchasing decisions, their information is especially valuable to marketers. Using a VPN, you can prevent profiles from being built around you and your child.
While residents of many countries can enjoy unrestricted access to the free web, there are a great number of countries where citizens can’t. Governments restrict access to certain web pages for various reasons. For example, if a website incites hatred, speaks ill of a country’s government, or encourages activities that are against a particular religion (such as porn or gambling sites), it could be blocked in certain countries or regions.
Governments often use ISPs to enforce this censorship. Since ISPs can see what websites you’re visiting and grant you access to those sites, they have the control to block access as mandated by the government.
While it is less common to see nowadays, bandwidth throttling by ISPs has been reported in the past. For example, Comcast admitted to throttling speeds for heavy internet users, although it says this practice has been suspended.
When you use a VPN, your ISP can’t see what you’re doing online, so you won’t be subjected to selective throttling on sites like Netflix, YouTube, and Skype.
Who can see my mobile data history?
Your mobile data history is accessible to your mobile service provider. They can see when and how much data you use, as well as your general location (based on which cell tower you’re connected to). Your data history may also be accessible to government agencies and other third parties, depending on the laws in your country. So if you’re concerned about who can see your mobile data history, the best thing to do is limit the amount of information that you share online and be careful about which apps you use.
Will my ISP be able to see that I’m using a VPN?
When you connect to a VPN, all of your traffic is encrypted and travels through an intermediary server. Because of the encryption, the contents of your traffic will be unreadable to anyone who intercepts it, including your ISP. This means it can’t see which sites you visit or what you’re doing online.
That said, it is possible that your ISP could see that your traffic is going through a VPN server. However, this doesn’t matter. VPNs are completely legal in most countries, and in the US, we have not heard of any ISPs punishing users for using a VPN.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for every country. For example, the “Great Firewall” in China is designed to detect and block all VPN traffic. In these situations, some VPN providers use advanced obfuscation technologies to continue to provide users with a VPN connection and access to the unfiltered web.
Logging policies explained
If you’ve done any research into VPNs, you may have come across some information about VPN logging policies. There are generally two types of logs that a provider might keep. The first is traffic logs, which would contain information about things like the sites you visit and the files you download. The second type is connection logs which contain information pertaining to your VPN session.
Ideally, you don’t want your VPN provider to keep any traffic logs whatsoever. If they do, then you’re not much better off than you would be with an ISP keeping an eye on you instead. The providers that keep these types of logs (often those offering free services) will typically be looking to profit from the information they record, such as by selling it to third-party advertisers.
Connection logs are not really a concern, as long as the provider doesn’t record things like your real IP address or the VPN IP address. If they do, it’s fairly easy for someone with that information to trace activity back to you. In that case, you’re back to a similar invasion of privacy you would have with your ISP.
To help you decide who to trust, we’ve studied the privacy policies of more than a hundred VPN providers to find out which logs they keep, if any.
Is a VPN my only option?
If you’re not convinced a VPN is right for you, there are other methods that will work to varying degrees. For example, using the Tor browser will encrypt your traffic and prevent your ISP from seeing which sites you’re visiting. However, this only works for browser traffic whereas a VPN encrypts all traffic going to and from your device. Bear in mind that your ISP will be able to see that you’re using Tor, which can raise some red flags. It’s also worth noting Tor will significantly slow down your connection speed.
See also: Best VPNs for Tor
HTTPS proxies are another option for encrypting browser traffic, but again, these don’t work for other traffic flowing to and from your device. Plus, with HTTPS proxies, your ISP can see which websites you’re visiting, although not specific pages or content.
Other proxies, for example, DNS and SOCKS, don’t encrypt your traffic, so they may be fine for some purposes, such as unblocking content. But they will generally leave your internet activity exposed to monitoring by your ISP.
Countries that use ISPs to censor content
We mentioned China above, but that isn’t the only country with a highly restricted internet. Other countries around the world censor content, often through ISP surveillance and tracking.
For example, in Algeria, ISPs are required to monitor their users’ online activity, with residents potentially facing criminal charges for posting certain content online.
In Bulgaria, the government requests that ISPs provide real-time access to the internet traffic of their users. And in Qatar, ISPs are mandated to block specific sites, including those that publish obscene content.
ISP tracking FAQs
How do I know what information my ISP is tracking?
It’s pretty much a given that your ISP is tracking at least some information about you, but exactly what information is collected can vary between providers. The extent to which activity is tracked may also depend on your location as data retention laws vary between regions.
Note that you should also be able to find out if the information may be shared with third parties, although this is almost always the case, so can generally be assumed. It’s unlikely that your ISP will go into detail about how information is used or shared.
Do I need to connect to a server in a different country?
No, connecting to any VPN server will encrypt your internet traffic and hide your activity from your ISP and any other snoopers. It’s often beneficial to connect to a server in your own country, for example, if you want the fastest connection speeds. But if you’re looking to bypass geographical restrictions, you’ll need to connect to a server in the appropriate country.
Does incognito mode hide my activity from ISPs?
No, it doesn’t. Incognito mode is designed to prevent websites identifying you using cookies and stop your browser remembering your internet activity. But websites can still see your IP address and identify your device, and your ISP can monitor your browsing activity.
Can my ISP see I’m using a VPN?
When you connect to a VPN, your traffic flows through a VPN server to get to your destination site. Your ISP can see that your traffic is going to that server and it might know that the server belongs to a VPN. That said, VPNs are legal in the US and most other countries, so you shouldn’t be penalized for using one.
Note that your traffic is encrypted so your ISP can’t read its contents and is unable to see which sites you are sending or receiving information from.
Can I ask my ISP for my internet history?
You can try, but your ISP is highly unlikely to supply you with the data.
Although ISPs are known to harvest their user’s internet history – both for their own purposes and to comply with legal requirements – they are not likely to pass this information over to their customers.
It would become extremely costly for ISPs to provide this service to their customers. The amount of requests that ISPs would receive from customers would likely be large, and dealing with those requests would require a department devoted to dealing with them.
ISPs get around this logistical nightmare by simply refusing to provide this service to their customers.
Can my ISP see if I visit adult sites?
Yes. In order to connect you to the internet and allow you to visit websites, your data must pass through your ISP’s gateway servers. This can allow your ISP to track the websites you visit and any downloads you make.
The important thing to remember is that your ISP must handle your DNS requests to connect you to the websites you want to visit. As a result, your ISP will be able to track the domain name for the adult website you are visiting, and potentially also the URL (depending on the type of encryption that is provided by the adult site).
The good news is that most adult sites these days provide HTTPS websites, so your ISP should only know you’re visiting an adult site; not which individual pages you choose to view. That said, this is still invasive, which is why it is better to completely prevent your ISP from detecting your online habits with a VPN.
Is it legal for my ISP to keep a record of my browsing history?
This depends on where you live. Unfortunately, the number of countries that have passed mandatory data retention directives is growing steadily. This means it is possible that it is not only legal for your ISP to record your browsing history, but that it is also required to do so by law.
In the UK, for example, the Investigatory Powers Act forces ISPs to retain user browsing histories and metadata for 12 months. That data must be passed to numerous government authorities if requested.
The same is true in many other countries, including Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Romania, Slovakia, Russia, Norway, and Switzerland, to name a few.
In the US, there is currently no law that forces ISPs to keep browsing histories or metadata. However, because of changes enforced during the Trump administration, it is legal for ISPs to both retain and sell records of user browsing histories; as long as those records do not contain any personally identifiable information.
Has anyone faced legal action due to their ISP sharing their private data?
Yes. ISPs have previously helped in copyright violation cases. This kind of assistance from Internet Service Providers can help attorneys to build a case against suspected pirates to seek injunctions against them that lead to fines and potentially even criminal court proceedings.
Various ISPs around the world have also complied with data requests from government authorities to assist in the arrest of criminals accused of more serious crimes, such as online harassment, stalking, fraud, scams, and other more serious crimes such as child abuse and human trafficking.
Can my ISP see my downloads?
Yes, your ISP can see your downloads, depending on how they are set up and the services they provide. Depending on your connection with your ISP, they may be able to see what websites you're visiting and which documents or files you are downloading.
In some cases, ISPs may even be able to track the types of files being downloaded from their network. This means that if you download an MP3 file from a website or torrent site, then your ISP will know about it. However, most ISPs do not monitor individual customers' activities closely. They usually collect data in bulk, so it's unlikely that they would be able to determine who exactly was responsible for specific downloads at any given time.
Furthermore, many ISPs have privacy policies in place that prohibit them from collecting and sharing personal information regarding their customers' online activities. Therefore, while it is possible that your ISP could be aware of what you download, they are usually not actively monitoring your activity or tracking specific downloads.
Does my ISP share my history with third parties?
It really depends on your location as to whether your ISP shares your history with third parties. For example, ISPs in the US can (and do!) legally sell customer data to third parties. This includes browsing history, the time and duration of visits to websites, and even location history.
However, this is not the case in all locations such as the EU where ISPs can’t share your data (such as your browsing history) with third parties without your consent. Of course, ISPs may still be required to disclose such data to authorities (the police) upon request.