Your ISP might sell your browsing data - here's what you can do about it

Did you know that your Internet service provider can now sell logs that include the URLs of the websites that you have visited? Sadly, this is not a sci-fi scenario; it is happening right now!

I guess that the first interested parties are government agencies. And my guess is that they have got enough money to pay for your data! I know that you may not be a public person, but who knows if someday you won't become one? Here's what you need to do, to keep your browsing history for yourself.

Introducing virtual private networks

VPNs help people keep their Internet browsing activities private. They are used by people in less fortunate countries to avoid censorship, for example. Now that the ISPs are allowed to collect and sell your data, the industry is booming, so the offer is quite broad. However, not all virtual private networks are created equal.

What is a VPN?

Virtual private networks are software applications that can create a... virtual network, which can connect to different networks. They aren't a new invention: corporations have been using them for several years now.

Here's an example: I've got a friend who was hired by a big company, and she has the perk of working from home two days per week. When she is at home, she connects to the office server using a VPN. This way, the company data is kept secure, even if she chooses to work by connecting to the free Wi-Fi network in her favorite coffee shop.

How does a VPN work?

Virtual private networks are able to reroute client traffic, making it appear as if you are accessing certain web resources from a totally different area of the globe. If you are in New York, for example, a VPN can make your ISP believe that another person has accessed your desired website from Ottawa, Canada.
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How is this possible? Your computer connects to a server in Ottawa, which connects to the website that you are interested in accessing. It's the best solution for people who want to hide their Internet activities from public networks, ISPs and governments.

It is also used to access online services and websites that aren't allowed in particular regions of the globe. People living in countries where the censorship level is high truly appreciate the convenience offered by VPNs, which allow them to access websites like Facebook and Twitter.

Picking a good VPN service

There are literally hundreds of virtual private networks providers. Most of them will offer services that will help keep secure your browsing activities. There are some features that can make all the difference in the world, though.

a) Location change. If you want to access a service that's located in the UK (to give you an example) you need to purchase a VPN service that offers UK-based servers. Otherwise, your virtual private network will be useless!

b) Number of servers and their locations. Location change is important, of course, but try to find out the number of servers in each location. Your VPN will be inaccessible, or browsing speed will be very poor if thousands of people have to share the single server that is located in a particular region.

c) 100% anonymity. Many VPNs will promise anonymity, but who knows what they are doing with your browsing data? If you really need this feature, there are third party solutions like Tor.

For most of us, though, a regular VPN will be more than enough. Pick a service provider that has a huge number of users, such as Hide My Ass. This will make it harder for the interested parties to track you down.

d) Data security. When it comes to security, VPN protocols range from very weak (think PPTP) to very strong (think OpenVPN). Always pick a VPN application that supports OpenVPN.

e) Payment methods. If you live in a high-risk country, you want to purchase a VPN service from a provider that gives you the option of paying anonymously - using a gift card, for example.