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 for imposing 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.
In this post, we reveal the best VPN to prevent activity tracking and how to set it up. We’ll also explain more about why ISPs and others track your activity and why you’d want to stop them.
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ExpressVPN is the best VPN in the industry for a host of reasons. It boasts a large network of more than 2,000 servers spanning 94 countries, so you won’t have issues finding a server in the appropriate location. All servers are optimized for speed, 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 also comes with DNS leak protection and a kill switch to ensure your traffic never leaves the encrypted tunnel and remains unreadable to your ISP.
ExpressVPN allows you to connect up to three devices simultaneously. It has apps 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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You can find out more about ExpressVPN in our in-depth review.
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 set up your VPN:
- Select a VPN provider that offers a service fitting for your needs. We recommend ExpressVPN but CyberGhost and NordVPN 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 data to build 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
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 helps 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 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.
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 being 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 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 it records, 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. Your ISP will also 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, this doesn’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 by 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.
The map above by Security Baron shows some of the worst-rated countries in terms of censorship surveillance, although it should be noted that this is not all conducted through the use of ISPs.
Main image credit: iPad tablet by licensed under CC BY 2.0.
- 1 The best VPN for stopping ISP tracking: ExpressVPN
- 2 How to use a VPN to prevent ISP monitoring
- 3 Can I use a free VPN to stop my ISP tracking my activity?
- 4 Why ISPs track your activity
- 5 Will my ISP be able to see that I’m using a VPN?
- 6 Logging policies explained
- 7 Is a VPN my only option?
- 8 Countries that use ISPs to censor content