How to protect your data against ISP snooping

privacy-against-isp-snoopingAs internet privacy continues to unravel, it is becoming more and more evident that you’re on your own to protect your data against the many parties that are looking to hoard it. Perhaps one of the most pervasive collectors of data are Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the same companies that connect you to the internet.

ISPs have a huge stake in collecting data, mostly in selling it to advertisers to serve more targeted ads. And they’re in the best position to do so with wild abandon, without fear of retribution.

But a lot more than your preferences can be inferred from your internet traffic, including your health conditions and political orientation among others.

That’s why spy agencies, nation states and other hackers are also looking to lay their hands on your internet traffic data to fulfill their own respective purposes. This makes ISPs an attractive target of cyberattacks.

And as we all know, data breaches happen at a very frequent rate.

As we’ve covered on TechTalks before, encryption is your best defense against intrusions on your data. But in this specific case, if you’re of a mind to prevent your ISP from having its way with your data, here are three things you can do to improve your privacy while surfing the web.

Only browse to HTTPS websites

From a security perspective, there are two kinds of websites: encrypted and unencrypted. URLs that begin with HTTP are not encrypted (browsers like Chrome don’t display the protocol when you browse to an HTTP website). Websites that begin with HTTPS (like the one you’re on right now) encrypt their traffic.

ISPs have full view of HTTP traffic, including the full URL of the page you visit and the data you send back and forth, including names, addresses and passwords.

On the other hand, HTTPS websites provide far better protection against eavesdropping. Sticking to browsing HTTPS websites will make sure your ISP won’t be able to look into the address and content of the pages you visit.

But be careful that HTTPS is not panacea. Your ISP will still know which websites you’re browsing to, if not the specific page within those websites. And that is still enough to find out much about you. For instance, based on the news websites you visit, your political tendencies can be profiled.

Moreover, there are still many popular websites (e.g. CNN) that have not switched to HTTPS, which means you’ll either have to forgo visiting those websites or accept the fact that you’re being watched when you do so.

HTTPS only accounts for websites and web applications. Other services such as FTP and SMTP have their own encryption and privacy problems and solutions.

Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

Virtual Private Networks are services that provide you with a secure, encrypted tunnel for your entire internet traffic. When using a VPN, instead of directly connecting to services, you encrypt and channel your traffic to the VPN’s encrypted gateway, which in turn communicates with your destination on your behalf and sends you back the response.

The greatest advantage of using VPNs is that they hide all of your data and metadata. Your ISP will have absolutely no idea what you’re doing or where you’re connecting to. Though it will know that you’re using a VPN.

However, do take care that VPN providers are companies too, which means they have reason to make commercial use of your data. This means your information is as secure as the VPN service you’re entrusting it with is reliable.

And not all VPNs can be trusted, especially those that provide their services for free. In general it’s better to spare a few bucks per month for your VPN service. Non-free services have less incentive to sell your data. Nonetheless, make sure you review the T&Cs of a VPN and read a couple of reviews about it before signing up.

Moreover, expect some websites and services to act weirdly or block you when connecting through a VPN.It is also natural to experience a little slowdown of your internet connection when using a VPN.

Use the Tor browser

The Onion Router (Tor) is a free, open-source, encrypted browser and a favorite among privacy advocates. Tor encrypts all of its traffic and bounces it off several nodes before sending it to the destination.

The Tor network is run by thousands of volunteers who lend their computers and connection to the service. This makes it much more reliable in terms of trust. There’s no single node that has full knowledge of the inner workings of the service and there’s no commercial motives involved.

However, Tor isn’t without flaws either. It’s been hacked several times, including by the FBI. There are also malicious Tor servers to watch out for.

Also, Tor tends to become very slow, and access restrictions to websites through Tor exit nodes are even more severe than VPNs.

Which option is better?

Well, it really depends on what you intend to do. These three options each have their own strengths and flaws and are suitable in different scenarios. Depending on the hostility of your environment and the criticality of the task you wish to accomplish, you can choose HTTPS, VPN or Tor.

But in any case, you’ll also need to follow these general cybersecurity guidelines, or no amount of secrecy and encryption will protect you.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.