I’ve heard a lot of great things about using a VPN, but I still wondered, what does my ISP see when I use a VPN? I did some research to learn more about ISPs, VPNs, and how they work together--here’s what I uncovered.
What does my ISP see when I use a VPN? Your IP address is the internet address (i.e., the location) of the device you’re using the access the internet. Your internet service provider (ISP) can see your IP address and collect data on you, but a virtual private network (VPN) creates a private tunnel so that your ISP see your VPN’s IP address--not yours.
All of this, of course, can seem complicated but thankfully it’s relatively straightforward. Since I was curious, I researched a little further. I wanted to know more about why people would use a VPN, whether or not it made sense for me, and if they’re even legal to use! Here are the answers to my questions:
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for virtual private network. A VPN is a way for you to privately, securely browse the internet or conduct business online. They’re as simple as downloading an app on your phone or an extension on your web browser and can be used for any device you have connected to the internet.
If you’ve worked for any kind of corporation or firm and had a login, there’s a good chance you’ve used a VPN, as their first development and application was corporate.
Today, VPNs can be used for a variety of different reasons. Primarily, they’re used for cybersecurity. Corporations use them to establish private networks so that employees can log in from off-site; individuals can also set up VPNs for themselves or their families.
Why Use a VPN?
Here are a few of the reasons VPNs are used:
Bypass geographical restrictions
Many countries around the world ban certain sites and, even if that's not the case, you might have trouble using your US version of Netflix while you're traveling out of the country. VPNs allow you to use a US server to bypass those restrictions.
Torrenting is a type of P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing technology, but when you're on the network, your IP is visible. Using a VPN obscures your IP so that your true location isn't visible.
No more third-party monitoring
Whether you're concerned about Big Brother and government overreach or simply don't want your real data tracked by Google, Facebook, and others, using a VPN allows you to search the web anonymously.
VPNs encrypt all of your data so even if somebody's trying to hack into your bank account while you're using a coffee shop wifi, you're safe.
Are VPNs Legal?
There are only a handful of countries where VPNs are completely outlawed (looking at you, North Korea) and a few other countries (Turkey and China, for example) have restrictions on them, but in most of the world, VPNs are completely legal. They’re heavily relied on by business and organizations to establish secure networks.
There’s a huge caveat to this, however, and that’s that illegal activity, even conducted under the guise of a VPN, is still illegal. Illegal activity varies by country, but for most Western countries, things like pedophilia and hacking are illegal no matter what and can be prosecuted.
Keep in mind, too, that there’s also some precedent for VPNs turning over their logs to governments. Again, if Big Brother is the reason you’re using a VPN, make sure you go with a VPN who does not keep logs--and therefore cannot turn them over.
Do ISPs Care If You Use a VPN?
ISPs (internet service providers) don’t care if you use a VPN unless you’re in a country where using a VPN is restricted or illegal (i.e., Russia, Turkey, or China). Keep in mind, however, that you cannot hide the fact that you’re using a VPN from your ISP.
Every IP address is registered, which means that your ISP will be able to track the IP address they’ve been sent--and even if it’s not yours, they’ll still be able to tag it to your VPN.
The potential of ISPs spying is one of the reasons many people look to VPNs--and don’t make the mistake of thinking a VPN user is into illicit or illegal activity. Often, individuals simply want more security and, on principle, don’t want to be spied on.
Can My ISP See What I Search?
If you’re not using something like a VPN, your ISP can see every time you make a connection with another server--i.e., any time you visit a website. And, unless the data you’re sending over the internet is encrypted, your ISP can read that, as well.
If that sounds like the stuff of conspiracy theory nightmares, it is--though for the most part ISPs assure individuals that this kind of invasion of privacy would never happen. Whether or not you believe your ISP is up to you!
Many people opt to bypass this “spying” by using a VPN. Your ISP will then see the VPN’s IP address, but not your IP address and can’t see what you’re downloading, what sites you’re visiting, what you’re searching for, and so forth.
I should take this opportunity again to remind you that illegal activity is illegal and can still be prosecuted, even if you’re using a VPN.
Can You Be Tracked If You Use a VPN?
ISPs and others can tell if you’re using a VPN; however, whether or not your VPN is logging your activity is another story. The most legitimate VPNs do not log your activity, which means that when the government comes calling, your VPN has nothing to turn over.
However, some VPNs do log activity, and there’s always the possibility that your VPN is logging you even if it says it doesn’t. Now, one of the concerns when using a VPN to bypass internet restrictions in places like Asia and the Middle East is that ISPs and governments are continually at work to create technology that blocks VPNs.
At the same time, VPNs are constantly rewriting themselves to become more sophisticated and outsmart the latest blocks. It’s a classic game of cat and mouse!
Can My ISP See What I Download?
There’s no difference between the data you download and the data you only view online, so the answer is yes, your ISP can see what you download unless you use something like a VPN. A VPN acts as a private tunnel that enables you to access the internet anonymously, whether that’s for privacy reasons, greater security, or for getting around government censorship.
I mean really, do you want your ISP seeing everything you download...
How Anonymous Does a VPN Make Me?
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending perhaps on which side of the law you find yourself on), a VPN can’t completely hide your identity. You can still be tracked by dedicated, technologically-savvy individuals; your VPN can be hacked, and so forth. VPNs do not allow you to be completely anonymous, but if you’re looking for security online, they are an important added measure.
It’s just like keeping your house safe--you wouldn’t set up a security system and then not lock the doors at night. Using a high-quality VPN alongside high-quality malware software and firewalls are other examples of ways to ensure your internet history is safe and not in your ISPs’ hands.
How to Setup a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
If like me, you’re convinced of the usefulness of a VPNs, you’re probably wondering how to get started with a VPN. My favorite after a lot of research so far is NordVPN, though it’s not the only great choice out there.
Once you’ve purchased or signed up, your VPN will likely have detailed instructions on how to get started. You might need to download something, like an app to your phone or tablet (make sure your VPN is compatible with all your devices before purchasing!).
Typically, you’ll need to visit your network settings or security settings on your phone or computer to add a VPN connection. After that, you’ll include the information your VPN has provided you, including the name or type of your service as well as your VPN username. You’ll need to authenticate your information, and then you can get started browsing the web securely. Just make sure you turn on your VPN before starting!
Final Thoughts on VPNs
So, what does my ISP see when I use a VPN? The good news is next to nothing. ISPs can’t see your data, downloads, or search history when you’re using a VPN.
While somebody ultra-dedicated could eventually uncover my identity and location, VPNs are great security measures that also allow a level of anonymity online. I plan to start using one ASAP.