The short answer is – yes, internet service providers (ISPs) can see and record everything you do online. However, there's much more you should know about it.
In this article, we cover ISP spying and tracking in detail – when, how, and why it happens. We also provide some valuable solutions and tips on how to prevent it and protect your privacy online. As a bonus, we include a list of the best Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as well, which are proven to be the most effective tools for fighting unwanted data exposures.
How and when can ISPs see your browsing history?
Basically, as soon as you establish an internet connection, all your online activities must go through your ISP before reaching destination sites or services. So yes, you guessed it, all your traffic data is at the mercy of your ISP… all the time. Think of it as a nosy mailman who, in order to deliver your mail correctly, regularly checks the destination address, sender's address, and sometimes even the content of the envelope – if he deems it necessary for whatever reason.
But that's not the worst part. Most ISPs save your browsing data, even years after you used their services. Some are obliged by the government to do so, and some do it for their own benefit. And, while most of them claim they never abuse or sell your information, you can find in the fine print of their privacy policies that they do, after all, "share" most of it with third parties. They are able to do it thanks to some vague excuses, such as "improving user experience".
How to hide your online activities from your ISP with a VPN?
The good news is you can easily avoid being tracked by your ISP with the help of a VPN. A VPN changes your IP address and directs all your online traffic through an intermediary server, which makes you untraceable to your ISP and other snoopers.
Another good consideration is that a VPN will also encrypt all of your internet traffic, making your online activities truly private. Additional features, like obfuscation (stealth servers), that some top-notch VPN providers offer, enable you to even hide the fact that you're using a VPN.
All of these increase your anonymity and security online, but how to start using a VPN? Don't worry, it's very easy! All you need to do is to follow these steps:
- Choose a VPN that's protective of your privacy. We recommend ExpressVPN, a battle-tested privacy titan that provides robust encryption, superb VPN protocols, leak protection, a kill-switch, and obfuscation. But make sure you also check the alternative VPNs below.
- Download and install the app/software on your device.
- Pick a VPN server and press the connect button. For hiding your digital footprint, any server will do, but for a more specific VPN usage, choose servers accordingly.
- Continue with your online activities as normal, your internet traffic is now private.
What are the best VPNs for staying private online?
After thorough research and testing, we concluded that the following are the best VPNs for hiding your browsing history from ISPs and other intruders. If you want to learn more about each of them, check out our in-depth reviews.
- ExpressVPN - The best VPN for staying private online. You get robust encryption, an audited zero-logs policy, and stealth servers everywhere. All with a risk-free 30-day money-back guarantee.
- NordVPN - The best buy VPN for hiding your browsing history from your ISP. It's affordable, with superior levels of privacy, leak protection, and features to match.
- Private Internet Access - A secure VPN that ensures your browsing history never gets exposed, with a court-proven zero-logs policy, and great coverage.
- PrivateVPN - A cheap but privacy-oriented service that comes with strong OpenVPN encryption, no logs policy, and a kill-switch.
- Surfshark - A feature-rich VPN, suitable for protecting your sensitive data from ISPs and other snoopers. You get unlimited simultaneous connections.
I don't want to use a VPN. What are my alternatives?
Is a VPN the only solution for hiding your online activities from your ISP? No, but it offers the most options and it's by far the most practical one. Still, if you simply aren't inclined towards using a VPN, some of your other options are:
Tor browser will encrypt your browsing traffic and route it through a series of random servers to make you unnoticeable online. However, Tor only ensures privacy when browsing. You'll still have to use a VPN to secure your apps and other online services.
For the most secure experience, you can combine the benefits of both by using Tor while connected to a VPN. Some VPNs, like NordVPN and Surfshark, even offer a feature that combines both these functionalities into one – it's called Tor over VPN, or in the case of NordVPN, Onion over VPN. We recommend you try it out!
Changing your DNS settings
Alternatively, you could change your DNS settings, but this won't encrypt your traffic nor protect you from the prying eyes of your ISP. It might enable you to access some restricted websites in your area, though.
Using the 18.104.22.168 DNS resolver by Cloudflare or Quad9 is an option too. This will add a layer of encryption to DNS, ensuring you get more privacy for your searches. Advanced VPNs, such as ExpressVPN, include encrypted DNS in their offer, and often on every server. Same as with Tor, it's best if you can use a combo of privacy settings, preferably in one privacy tool. Which is exactly what the leaders of the VPN industry ensure.
HTTPS proxies are another alternative to a VPN. They may hide your search history from your ISP (to an extent), but the main problem with proxies is that not all of them use encryption, so whoever is running them can monitor your unencrypted internet traffic. In addition, they can also see your real IP address.
Or, you could use a browser extension called HTTPS Everywhere, which will encrypt your online traffic with plenty of major websites. However, the encryption won't apply to all your inbound and outbound traffic. Also, same with proxies in general, your ISP may not be able to see the specific contents of your searches, but it will still see which websites you’re visiting.
Privacy-conscious search engines
Here the rule is very simple – the better known the search engine, the bigger likelihood it's tracking your data. World-famous search engines like Google Chrome and Safari are the worst for your online privacy since their business models are actually based on data collection and (ab)use.
On the other hand, we have some privacy-conscious search engines, such as DuckDuckGo that don't log your search information. They are much safer options whenever you wish to protect your searches from third parties and the browser itself. Bear in mind, though, that DuckDuckGo won't be able to block your ISP from seeing your search history. It doesn't hide your searches, it simply doesn't track them.
Why do ISPs spy on you?
This leads us to our next major question – why ISPs spy on you in the first place? Or better yet, what do they gain from it? Well, it turns out a lot! Here are just some main reasons for such practices and uses:
- For advertising purposes – By now, you must have heard about targeted advertising. Nowadays, the most successful companies worldwide use the personal data of internet users to sell products back to them and accumulate wealth – the more info about someone's whereabouts, preferences, and habits they have, the better! In a world where data means money and power, it doesn't surprise that ISPs use their position to create lucrative deals with businesses and marketing companies.
- Government/law requirements – Sometimes ISPs are obliged by the law to track and store online traffic data of citizens/visitors in a certain country. Many conservative governments impose such laws under the pretext that these are necessary measures against terrorism and other dangers to national security. However, others, and not without grounds, claim that this is just another way for totalitarian governments to control their citizens.
- To help governments enforce censorship – Similarly to the above, governments use ISPs to regulate what type of content reaches (and influences) their citizens and what web pages should be blocked. Some countries known for strict censorship are North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, and Belarus.
- To manage network traffic – Some ISPs use their data logs more directly. Based on users' previous data consumption on certain websites, they can decide to slow down the speed of their service for those websites. Usually, those are the sites that require fast speeds and heavy data usage, like Netflix, YouTube, and such. They supposedly do it to manage data traffic and reduce congestion. This is called bandwidth throttling, and it's not as common nowadays as it used to be, since many users in the past complained about poor service due to such practices.
Who else can see what I do online?
ISPs and governments are notorious for spying on your browsing history, but they are not the only ones who can see what you do on your mobile phones and computers. Wi-Fi administrators, search engines, and website owners all have access to your search data. Not to mention that many apps nowadays (weather, location, gaming apps, and such) collect a ridiculous amount of data without any actual need for such practices – you guessed it, it's another way for them to make a profit.
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that certain apps, social media platforms, dating apps, and browsers know more about some aspects of your life than you yourself might be aware. They are all set and equipped to offer you the product you didn't know you want and you don't actually need. Worse even, they might share the data with third parties, whose true intentions are often questionable, and sometimes even downright dangerous.
This is all without even considering the potential hazards of data manipulation once hackers and spyware software get into the picture. So, you see, leaving your browsing history exposed is not a joke, and protecting your privacy on your devices might be much more important than you thought.
How to protect your online privacy FAQs
Internet service providers, Wi-Fi administrators, governments, app and website owners, and many other third parties can directly see, or indirectly find out, what you do online. It's not as much that they enjoy meddling in your business (except for some governments), as they believe using your data can boost theirs. Their methods are often unscrupulous and you never know where this data-sharing/selling chain ends, or where else your information may end up.
Luckily, there are measures each of us can take to protect our online privacy and security, and using all the available privacy tools, particularly VPNs, is always a good idea. Let's remind ourselves once again which ones are the best for the job.
The best VPN for staying private online. You get robust encryption, an audited zero-logs policy, and stealth servers everywhere. All with a risk-free 30-day money-back guarantee.
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