Data Doctors: Hiding from your internet service provider

Q: In light of the recent internet privacy legislation, will using a VPN keep my ISP from tracking what I do online?

Legislation passed by Congress will essentially overturn a rule passed by the previous Federal Communications Commission chairman that would’ve required internet service providers — or ISPs — to ask for your permission before sharing your browsing and usage data with third parties.

The rule was never put in place, so in a sense, the recent bill leaves things the way they’ve always been.

Your ISP knows the most

Regardless of any regulations, your ISP has and always will know the most about how you generally use the internet as a normal course of providing you their service. The issue is really more of what they can do with that information, which is now a confusing mess that’s up in the air.

Services such as Facebook and Google can only track you when you’re using their resources or their associated third parties, which admittedly is pretty extensive, but your ISP logs every site that you visit.

For clarity, when you visit encrypted sites (those that start with https://), your ISP can see that you went there, but they can’t see what you do within the site, so much of the “privacy” that many people want already exists.

How VPNs hide you

Using a VPN, which stands for virtual private network, will reduce your ISP’s ability to track where you go online because everything you do after you connect to a VPN is masked in a private “tunnel.”
Your ISP would then only see you connecting to the VPN, but nothing after that.

But there are trade-offs.

VPN trade-offs

If you decide to us a VPN service, you’re essentially trading who can see everything you’re doing from your ISP to your VPN service provider. Can you trust a VPN service provider any more than your ISP? That‘s the primary question you’ll have to answer yourself before making the change, so make sure you’ve thoroughly researched any company before you start using their service (some of them are based in other countries and aren’t necessarily subject to our privacy laws).

Keep in mind that a free VPN service is most likely selling your browsing history to pay for the service and even some pay services could do the same because there’s no regulatory body overseeing these companies.

Some VPNs can also degrade performance, depending upon the quality of their network, and can be confusing for non-technical users.

Tech-savvy privacy advocates often choose to spend the money to set up their own VPN server, but that’s not a very realistic option for most people.

True privacy: all or nothing

Using a VPN might limit how much your ISP knows about your browsing habits, but that won’t stop the dozens of other ways you’re being tracked every day by lots of others.

If you’re truly concerned about privacy, you’ll need to completely change what you use to browse the web, how you maintain your computer, and stop using all of the most popular websites and social networks as a real person.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on Facebook or Twitter.

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