How to Hide Your Browsing History From Your ISP

Don't let your ISP sell you out to advertisers

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Can Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the U.S. sell your browsing data to advertisers without your permission? The answer is maybe and depends on the current administration's interpretation of various laws and regulations, the primary legislation of which was passed in the 1930s and thus didn't address the Internet or other modern technologies.

Entities like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can make recommendations to ISPs, such as requiring customer permission or offering an opt-out or opt-in feature, but recommendations aren't enforceable by law.

Moreover, new administrations can rollback even simple recommendations.

While Congress sorts out how ISPs can use your browsing information, including whether they need your permission to sell your data to advertisers, it's a good idea to do an audit of your security practices. Whether or not you're concerned about your ISP, there are a few best practices that can help protect your private data and prevent others from tracking your browsing history.

How Private is Private or Incognito Browsing?

The short answer is: not so much. The longer answer is that while using a browser's private or incognito option will prevent that session from showing up in your local browsing history, your ISP can still track that using your IP address. It's a good feature to use if you're using someone else's computer or want to keep an embarrassing search out of your history, but private browsing isn't completely private.

Use a VPN

When it comes to Internet security, a VPN (virtual private network) offers several benefits. First, it protects your device – whether it's a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, or even smart watch in some cases – from would-be hackers while you're on the Internet. It's especially important when you're on an open (public) or unsecured Wi-Fi network which can leave you vulnerable to hacking and can compromise your privacy.

Second, it masks your IP address, so that your identity and location are anonymized. Because of this, VPNs are often used to spoof one's location to access sites and services that a country or locality blocks. For example, services like Netflix and other streaming services have regional blocks in place, while others may block Facebook or other social media sites. Note that Netflix and other streaming have caught on to this practice, and will often block VPN services.

In this case, a VPN can prevent your ISP from tracking browsing history and linking that activity with specific users. VPNs aren't perfect: you can't hide everything from your ISP, but you can certainly limit access, while also benefitting from the security. Also, many VPNs track your surfing and are subject to law enforcement warrants or requests from ISP.

There are many VPNs that don't track your activity, and even let you pay anonymously using cryptocurrency or another anonymous method, so even if law enforcement knocks at the door, the VPN has no information to offer but a shrug of the shoulders.

Top rated VPN services include:

  • NordVPN is based in Panama and has 821 Servers in 57 Countries
  • KeepSolid VPN Unlimited is U.S.-based and has more than 1000 servers in more than 70 locations
  • PureVPN is headquartered in Hong Kong and has more than 750 servers in 141 countries
  • Private Internet Access VPN service has more than 3251 servers in 25 countries (base location unknown)

NordVPN offers month-to-month and annual discounted plans, and allows up to six devices per account; the other three mentioned here allow only five each. It features a kill switch that will shut down any applications you specify if your device is disconnected from the VPN and thus vulnerable to tracking. ​

KeepSolid VPN Unlimited offers a monthly, annual, and even a lifetime plan (pricing varies based on occasional discounts.) However, it doesn't offer a kill switch.

PureVPN includes a kill switch that disconnects your device completely from the Internet if the VPN cuts outs. It has a monthly, six-month, and two-year plan. 

Private Internet Access VPN service also includes a kill switch. You can even buy a router with this VPN pre-installed, and it will protect every connected device. It has a monthly, six-month, and one-year plan. All of the VPNs listed here accept anonymous payment methods, such as Bitcoin, gift cards, and other services and none of them keep logs of your browsing activity. Also, the longer you commit to any of these VPNs, the less you pay.

Use the Tor Browser

Tor (The Onion Router) is network protocol that offers private web browsing, which you can access by downloading the Tor browser. It works differently from a VPN, and it's noticeably slower than your typical Internet connection. The best VPNs don't compromise on speed, but cost money, while Tor is free. While there are free VPNs, most have data limits.

You can use the Tor browser to hide your location, IP address, and other identifying data, and even dig into the dark web. Edward Snowden is said to have used Tor to send information about PRISM, the surveillance program, to journalists at The Guardian and the Washington Post in 2013.

Believe it or not, the U.S. Naval Research Lab and DARPA, created the core technology behind Tor, and the browser is a modified version of Firefox. The browser, available at torproject.org, is maintained by volunteers and is funded by personal donations as well as grants from the National Science Foundation, the US Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and a handful of other entities.  

Using the Tor browser alone doesn't guarantee your anonymity; it asks that you follow safe browsing guidelines. Recommendations include not using BitTorrent (a peer-to-peer sharing protocol), not installing browser add-ons, and not opening documents or media while online.

Tor also recommends that users only visit secure HTTPS sites; you can use a plug-in called HTTPS Everywhere to do so. It's built into the Tor browser, but it's available with regular old browsers too.

The Tor browser comes with some security plug-ins pre-installed in addition to HTTPS Everywhere, including NoScript, which blocks JavaScript, Java, Flash and other plugins that can track your browsing activity. You can adjust NoScript's level of security though if you need to visit a site that requires a particular plug-in to work.

These security and privacy enhancements come at a small cost: performance. You'll probably notice a decrease in speed and may have to suffer some inconveniences. For instance, you'll probably have to enter a CAPTCHA on many sites due to the use of CloudFlare, a security service that may find your cloaked identity suspicious. Websites need to know that you're human and not a malicious script that could launch a DDOS or another attack.

Also, you may have trouble accessing localized versions of certain websites. For example, PCMag reviewers were unable to navigate from the European version of PCMag.com to the U.S. since their connection had been routed through Europe.

Finally, you can't keep your emails or chats private, though Tor offers a private chat client as well.

Consider the Epic Privacy Browser

The Epic Privacy Browser is built on the Chromium platform, just like Chrome. It offers privacy features including a Do Not Track header and it hides your IP address by redirecting traffic through a built-in proxy. Its proxy server is in New Jersey. The browser also blocks plug-ins and third-party cookies and doesn't retain history. It also works to detect and block ad networks, social networks, and web analytics.

The home page displays the number of blocked third-party cookies and trackers for the current browsing session. Because Epic doesn't save your history, it doesn't try to guess what you're typing or autofill your searches, which is a small price to pay for privacy. It also won't support password managers or other convenient browser plug-ins.

The Do Not Track header is simply a request to web applications to disable its tracking. Thus, ad services and other trackers don't have to comply. Epic counteracts this by blocking a variety of tracking methods, and anytime you visit a page that includes at least one tracker, it pops up a small window within the browser showing how many it blocked.

Epic is a good alternative to Tor if you don't need such robust privacy.

Why Internet Privacy Policy is So Confusing

As we said, because many FCC regulations are subject to interpretation and because the head of the FCC changes with each presidential administration, the law of the land can vary depending on which political party the country elects to the highest office. All this serves to make it difficult for service providers and customers to understand what's legal and what's not.

While it's possible that your ISP could opt to be transparent about what, if anything, it does with your browsing history, there's no specific legislation saying it has to.

The other contributing factor is that main piece of legislation that ISPs and telecom providers use to guide their policies is the FCC Telecom Act of 1934. As you can guess, it doesn't specifically address the Internet, or cellular and VoIP networks, or any other technologies that did not exist in the early part of the twentieth century.

Until there's a legislative update to this act, all one can do is protect your data from your ISP so that it has little or no data to sell to advertisers and other third parties. And again, even if you're not concerned about your ISP, it's important to shore up your privacy and security practices to thwart hackers and protect your devices from malware and other malfeasance.

It's always worth it to withstand some inconvenience upfront to avoid a data breach later.