Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Your ISP controls your internet connection and it's easy for them to monitor the data you send and receive. The question is, why would they bother?

Can employees at a local telephone ISP read my e-mails and monitor my web surfing and tell others about what they read/see?

Yes they can.

The real question is would they? Probably not.

And if it's of real concern to you, what might you do? I do have some ideas.

Your ISP knows a lot about you. They ultimately control your connection to the internet. And by control, I do mean total control.

They know where you live, so as to be able to physically get your connection to you. For example, as I've said over and over and over and over, in order to locate you by your IP address, it typically takes law enforcement and a court order. Where do they take that court order? To your ISP, to get them to reveal your physical location.

Your ISP also controls the equipment that all your internet data flows over once it leave your location. You connect to your ISP, and it's your ISP that then routes the data to where it's supposed to go elsewhere on the internet.

Can they "sneak a peek" at your data while they route it? Absolutely they can.

"In my strong opinion most people need do nothing to protect themselves from their ISP."

The question is: would they?

Folks, I've said this before too: we're just not that interesting. Why would anyone want to spend time looking at gigabytes of data just so they can spy on your surfing habits or email? Most ISPs are overworked enough as it is, without adding some kind of electronic voyeurism to their job.

In my strong opinion most people need do nothing to protect themselves from their ISP.

OK, so what if you still want to protect yourself? What if you have a legitimate reason for being paranoid?

Several possible solutions come to mind:

  • Secure connections - any connection that begins with https instead of http is an encrypted connection. So while your ISP can see which sites you are visiting, the data actually sent to or displayed from the web site on an https connection is encrypted. Using an https connection to a service like GMail is one way to secure your email from snooping. Naturally you're still trusting the mail providers not to snoop on you.

  • Anonymous Web Surfing - using services like Anonymizer, Tor or other services like them your ISP can tell that you're using the service but they cannot tell where you're surfing; it's all encrypted. It'll be slower, but it'll be encrypted. And of course you're trusting the service not to snoop on you.

  • Encrypted Email - there are several ways to send encrypted email. Your ISP will be able to see who you're emailing, but your message will be encrypted and hidden. Encrypted email is not easy for most people to set up, but it can be done.

  • VPN Services - There are services available that will allow you to set up a VPN or "Virtual Private Network" connection to their services which then connect you to the internet. Typically meant for people who use WiFi hotspots a lot (where snooping is a much greater risk and issue) everything between you and the service is encrypted, thus your ISP can't see a thing. Of course the service can.

So it really all boils down to your level of paranoia, which could be quite legitimate or not, compared with the amount of effort you're willing to put into keeping your connection secure.

But ultimately I don't believe that their ISP snooping on them is something most people need to worry about.

Article C3004 - April 25, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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43 Comments
John Dennis
April 27, 2007 10:02 AM

Can my server (like the server that my employer uses for the network) find out what internet sites I visit?
Thanks

Paul Masters
May 1, 2007 10:52 PM

John,

Yes, they can, and do. Many people have lost their jobs because of their surfing habits at work.

cle_and
May 4, 2007 2:23 AM

I think you may not have answered his second question... if 'employees of ISP' can tell other people about what they saw. This is rather a question of legality, rather than technicality. Yes, tehnically it is possible, but legally..? I think ISP is responsible enough to prohibit it.

George Arauz
May 8, 2007 4:39 AM

Employer ISP definitely can track what sites you visit. My cousin found that one out the hard way.

Davie P
May 22, 2007 9:54 AM

How can I monitor what connection I have(I'm on a 2MB line)as I dont think I'm getting what I'm paying for on a regular basis.
TIA

sassora
June 24, 2007 4:20 AM

Try
http://www.speedtest.net/

Andy
November 26, 2007 7:43 PM

I sometimes use my company wireless laptop to surf the net while I'm on business trips. Can my employer see what I'm surfing if I don't log onto the company VPN or network?

Leo A. Notenboom
November 27, 2007 12:41 PM

-----BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE-----
Hash: SHA1

Possibly. They could have installed spyware, or configured your system to
access their proxies even though you've not explicitly done so yourself.

Thanks,

Leo


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David
December 7, 2007 12:48 PM

If I delete the history, and all associated files to my internet usage, such as porn, etc... Can they still view it? I'd like to know how to cover some tracks... I definately have learned that I can't be looking at non-business material at work... HELP?!?!?!?

pooky
April 15, 2008 10:46 AM

i'm not worried about the ISP so much as the low paid customer service staff who hate their jobs, their lives, and have nothing better to do than cause havoc using my identity

Shawn
April 30, 2008 1:53 AM

There are many service providers who provide VPN service. I use VPN service of mp4you.net so I don't worry about my employer.
I was using another VPN service www.vpngates.com, but there are serious bandwidth limitations.

Alex
May 27, 2008 6:43 AM

Also you can use logless public vpn service called VPN Privacy and surf anonymously.

bogdan
August 21, 2008 7:23 AM

Try http://www.cry.ro/
to anonymous surfing on internet

Brandon
September 1, 2008 4:04 AM

do they tell us if we ask what sites we have visited?
Do they know if we are using vpn?
and i'd like someone to answer david's quiestion if they can still peek even when we have cleared the history...
Do they have the sites that we have visited in a database record or something?

*DO* they? There's no way to know for sure. Some might, but I suspect most do not. You're just not that intersting.

*COULD* they? Yes, of course.

There's no way to know exactly what any specific ISP is actually doing. And whatever you might find out today about one ISP will be different tomorrow, or for any other ISP. The important thing here is to know that they COULD, not try and rely on what the DO.

-Leo

tonja
September 8, 2008 8:55 AM

my ex wife is a school teacher. she emailed me from her home computer. why did her home IP address not show up. only her her school email IP did. my son emailed from the same house under his yahoo email and their home IP address came up. it is confusing me.

let it be known
October 22, 2008 9:34 AM

yes the isp's always monitor your internet usage.... why i say this is because i got a call from my isp....so hell yeah i know they do monitor in somewhat a way your internet activity ... but not 24/7 paranoid kind of way... but its not like they dont even glance at it at all....

Anonymous
March 6, 2009 3:19 AM

if i change the properties of my vpn i think they couldn't catch me,right :)

Anonymous
March 12, 2009 8:56 AM

If I access the internet using my PC, using my employer-provided ISP, and employer-provided modem (which I also use to access the internet on my company laptop, from home) can my employer see what sites i visit on my PC, even if i am not connected to the VPN?

They could. Whether they'd bother to is a different question. No idea on that.
- Leo
13-Mar-2009

Dilshan
March 19, 2009 11:29 AM

hey Leo. do u think an ISP can take screen shots of my monitor? or record my monitor screen while i connected to the internet? please answer. thanks!

Joey
April 4, 2009 1:02 PM

My ISP, Wow Internet, gave me a second offense (first one was cause someone was downloading video game torrents) because I complained about stuff on my Twitter account. All I did was say that I hated my mom and that I hate that adolescents have no freedom. So yes, your ISP is monitoring your internet 24/7. And because I'm a minor, I can't do anything about it but sit there and be paranoid because I can't trust my ISP anymore.

While watching for torrent activity is common, it's more likely that someone complained to your ISP about your behaviour when you made those comments about your mom.
- Leo
05-Apr-2009

Carlos
June 3, 2009 2:31 PM

Leo, even though i use VPN can my ISP know the bandwith i'm using at any given point or the amount of data that i've downloaded?

Yes.
- Leo
04-Jun-2009

Bit worried
June 22, 2009 4:20 PM

Great site! Can my ISP legally reveal internet usage to an employer if I use a company USB modem?

i understand they can only provide stats not details.

Sorry, but I'm not a lawyer. The answer probably also varies based on where you live. I wouldn't think so, but like I said, I can't know for sure.
- Leo
23-Jun-2009
Prowler
July 22, 2009 1:11 PM

Hello Leo, and all who have posted on this article!
My question is possibly like a few others that makes me wonder... However I do know that my ISP can do what ever they want too, if need be spy on me and what I'm doing online like, Surfing, Downloading, Reading Emails blah blah etc! But mainly its downloading that they are looking into on my PC. Is there such a way to possibly spy on my ISP!!!! to find out why they wanna know so much about me / what I do on my free time! I would be glad to know if anyone can answer that for me. Or help me find a better way to stop my ISP from knowing what I do online, Which is my own business not anyone elses. See I feel that it is a invasion of my privacy which no one should know what I do online. It is my own business like I said!

What's important to understand here is that just because an ISP can spy on you doesn't mean that they are spying on you. In fact I'm sure that 99.9999% of the time your ISP doesn't give a toot what you're doing and isn't going to take the time, bother and expense to spy on you.

When ISPs do look at what you're up to, it's typically for one of three reasons: 1) someone complained to them about some aspect of your behaviour, 2) law enforcement has some kind of interest in you and came to your ISP with the appropriate paperwork, or 3) you caused some kind of technical difficulty - like perhaps using tons of bandwidth by running a server - that caught the ISPs attention.

There's only so much you can do. You can encrypt everything you're doing over a VPN, tunnel or some other kind of anonymization service, but even then things like the amount of bandwidth you use will always be visible to your ISP and may start them asking questions if it's causing problems.

The important thing here is simply to know that your ISP can see what you do by default. The probably don't, unless there's a good reason.

Don't take it personally, but you're just not that interesting.
- Leo
23-Jul-2009

Krish
September 23, 2009 5:30 AM

ISP may not be interested in our email or websites we visit, but it is possible for a renegade or corrupt employee to do this with a little prodding and loose change from our enemies or competitiors. This is very true in a county like ours where cyber laws are still evolving and supervision and enforcement are lax. It is easy for the perpetrator, who by now would have ruined the customer, to go scot free while the ISP may get its reputation tarnished. In my case this snooping was happening for sometime and when I complained,the ISP, part of a billion dollar entity, was in denial mode at first and now have come around saying we'll investigate. Now I have decided to approach the top management to enlighten them on this and put in proper processes to help customers.

Ginger Peechez
September 29, 2009 9:20 AM

Oh, there's one more reason they might want to spy on you, as some of us Comcast subscribers have learned. They want to know what you think of them. Send a message with "Comcast Sucks" or "Lousy Comcast Service", etc., in your message subject line and you'll suddenly get "generic" messages from them wanting to know how to improve their service. Don't tell me they're not watching.

Alex
October 12, 2009 7:53 PM

Hi Leo. Alot of great info here. What a great find. Anyway, I have a question. If the government agency has a court order to search one's email conversation, how likely are they to search past email conversations? I mean do ISPs keep all emails from all their users or they have a time limit after which all emails beyond the time limits are erased from the ISP's database. Can ISP pull out all my email contents on a moment's notice? Just something I wanted to ask but no one to ask until now. Thanks.

There's no way to know "how likely". What will be available will vary from ISP to ISP, and how much effort the authorities are willing to put in depends on the situation.
Leo
13-Oct-2009

Jim
October 19, 2009 10:58 PM

You're right, ISPs usually aren't very interested in monitoring and recording your online activities, but the government intelligence agencies are.

I would warn you about what's to come as far as the death of online privacy, but the fact is that the death has already occurred.

Over the past decade, the intelligence agencies have received virtually no resistance from ISPs in their pursuit of full monitoring access.

This is mainly because they lie to ISPs.
They tell them that their intention is to catch horrible people such as 'terrorists' and child pornographers, and then assure them that only those people will be monitored.

So, at this point, I guarantee you that the U.S. intelligence agencies are recording every single thing you're doing online.
And, thanks to exponentially advancing data storage technology, they have absolutely no reason to ever delete the information they've recorded.


hugh
November 10, 2009 6:32 AM

I think my friend has looked at undesirable sites and worry they are looking at me, if he has done how long before i found out.

John Doe
November 16, 2009 2:08 PM

I looked at pornographic sites, nothing dodgy, merely women in bikinis and celebrity spyshots from paparazzi and used automobile sites, would an ISP really be interested in spying on me for that?

June
December 22, 2009 11:32 PM

Quite frankly you don't know what you are talking about. All your communication & surfing via the internet is monitored, tracked and fed into a database that spins out a profile about who you are,where you live,images downloaded, sites visited,computer used, mac address location, etc ad nauseum and sold to third parties who turn and sell them to various governmental and non government agencies. ISP's overworked...come on...it's done through software and fed into a database...easy to do even capturing your MAC address, system processor. Check out privacy.net and the lawsuit against Microsoft and Comcast. It's illegal and a violation of Federal and State Law to record a conversation via telephone in most states w/o proper notification, or wiretap a phone line without a court order, or open someone else's postal mail but are you saying it is perfectly legal to read another person's email without proper authorization? Now, just where did you get your law degree? Did you know that Microsoft encodes info. about you in every document you use. So now comcast hijacks your DNS so is that phishing when they redirect you to another site..hmmmm... but then ISP's are too busy to do that. I wonder about copyright infringement? Who gets all that ad money? Didn't ICann knock down Verisign for trying the samething? Private policy statements...hmmm again check out privacy.net

Jack S.
January 8, 2010 12:20 PM

Hi Leo: I noticed you mentioned that with services like Anonymizer and Tor, your ISP will know (or can know, if they look) that you are using those services but will not know where you are surfing. A few questions for the fully paranoid:

1) What would that look like to the ISP while you are surfing? Would some specific data that says "Anonymizer" or "Tor" show up as the site you are currently visiting?
2) If so, would the very fact that they now know you are using such a service cause suspicion? "Hmmm. This guy's using Tor. He must be up to something. Let's look a little closer."
3) Is it possible that some ISPs prohibit the use of such services, and could therefore cancel your service for violation of terms? I have read my ISPs terms of service, and it says nothing about it that I can find. My colleagues have done the same and found nothing in their agreements either.

Thank you for this great site! I just found it today and as a student studying cyber laws I am very interested in these topics.

1) Exactly - they'll be able to see that you've connected to an anonymization service.
2) No idea. Most people aren't interesting enough to even be looking at, so they may never notice. Most folks have an over-developed sense of paranoia, I've found. Not that *some* people aren't being watched, but most people are not.
3) Depends entirely on the ISP, the agreements and who knows what else. Is it possible? Sure. Will they? Unlikely, I would think.
Leo
09-Jan-2010
Charles
February 14, 2010 8:12 PM

I think someone monitoring my internet usage, would be bored to death.

ahmad
February 15, 2010 6:09 PM

I am from a 3rd world country they spy on ur internet ,mobile phone,emails and every thing so
this article is very usful thank you

Jane Doe 2
February 17, 2010 2:48 PM

Most definitely they can and do. I use Cox ISP. I tried using the Anonymizer, and apparently Cox has a system where it immediately acknowledges this program, therefore, I was unable to do any surfing at all. They completely shut down my use of the internet. I had to quit using it in order to use the internet.

J
March 11, 2010 10:37 PM

surf sites that hopefully will lead them to create a totally opposite/wrong profile on you. Play their cards on them!

Phil
May 10, 2010 1:48 PM

I just had a read through because im with a new isp and was curious...

about a year ago, UK, and i think USA government are paying yahoo, google(100%) etc email companies to "by law" store data for a year! they say they can only store date, time, from and to, and other tiny snippets (no actual content) but im sure with legal rights they could explore in more detail...

i know for a fact that "educational/research only companies" have programs in testing that monitors keywords, i.e. "bomb", "Kill" etc etc... these are for some reason based in china.... a "Peerguardian" type of program i tried initiated a curious google search on isp addresses connected to my pc and collecting data...

at the end of the day, as long as you're not doing anything severely illegal, what do you have to worry about? to be honest, i think its a good thing to some degree... for many reasons! far out ways the downside of being embarrassed about porn, or a small slap on the wrist for plagiarism/piracy! especially when we are faced with terrorism... fraud... child abuse... drugs... hate crimes etc etc etc

some disgruntled employee has fun in your name, you can prove it wasnt you without even trying! also, most people are untrusting of the internet, and know they can be traced, so knowing that, why even bother?

Great site BTW Leo! i have floated through a few times!

YouWantMyRealNameWellToBad
February 21, 2011 11:38 AM

Of course the ISP knows everything. They own the physical cables and hardware that carries the data your computer transmits. ISProvider. By provide they mean route, so it goes through them. As said in the article you can stop them from seeing the data being transmitted by they still know where it is going to. If you want watertight security, don't use the internet. Microwave your computer, burn it or drive over it a few times in a heavy goods vehicle. Whatever.

This is the only TRUE way to be "secure" because either way you are the transmitter. You want your information (data) to get from A to B. You are going to be trusting someone to deliver that data.

And For Your Information all these "encrypted" services aren't ever as secure as they are marketed. SSL, HTTPS and all these other encryption methods are nothing to some people. How safe do you feel pitching that "super secure" protocol of yours against any one of these cypher building/breaking supercomputers - not that they even require that as many of these common encryption techniques have been around for years and have well known flaws.

Either way, it's game over. If you want to form a terrorist plot, assassinate someone, overthrow the government or anything else we could "all be using the internet for" just forget the net ever existed.

However as the author pointed out. Why does the ISP care? Why would they care? I mean sure I have countless opportunities to exploit computer systems every day and go sifting through hard drives seeing what people have been doing but why would I want to do that. It's boring and a waste of time.

ISPs only care what your using their "service" for and throw all your information to the hungry dogs because they don't want to be held liable.

Matt
June 27, 2011 12:05 AM

another nifty trick would also be something like PeerBlock, it alil added firewall that is a bit more obtrusive on ur own puter, that with added IP list/s to either allow connections or to block totally for whatever reason, I use it myself and trust me I feel alot better!!!

kammy
September 22, 2011 7:19 PM

thank you will subscribe to you using anony yet cannot give email been years on web your answer the most straight to the point rubbishless completely just want to say thank you and much appreciated got to you accidentally advertise more more people need you.

DongHop
October 25, 2011 3:09 AM

Thanks for offering good information but my paranoia doesn't exist because I"m worried about my private internet usage is being seen...it's because I live in China and the only reason why I bought a VPN to begin with was so I could access websites like youtube and facebook - not because I'm doing anything illegal but because I want to stay in touch with the world. And my ISP watches everything I do even using a strong VPN service provider, and they intentionally slow down or completely block all of my internet chatter. I'll be surprised if this message ever goes through. And I'm dying to see my family on webcam. Damn paranoid bastards - Who, me?

Rudolph
November 28, 2011 1:23 AM

Doesn't matter what you use your ISp can still see what your doing. All they need to do is check the packets coming in from the Proxy and going out at the right time. A VPN service is basically a web proxy where you pay for a trust level. So it ain't really a VPN. Its a connectivity service basically. It doesn't connect you to a private network but to the Internet so they are not VPN's.

In reality there is no such thing as real anonymity online, if you do something bad enough, the people in power can find you. IP Spoofing is misunderstood in 9/10 cases and is no protection against anything. And web proxies, offer little or no protection. They are good enough if you just want to stop your school/parents/office from tracking your surfing habits, but they won’t protect you from doing time if you commit a federal crime.

A good VPN service is much more than a web proxy. It truly is a Virtual Private Network to their servers which hides all your traffic from your ISP and points inbetween. One the traffic leaves the VPN service, of course, it is back in the cleaer.
Leo
29-Nov-2011

Burfee
January 31, 2012 10:18 AM

this is an old article and now you have the answer to your repeated question in the article ("why would your ISP check your traffic") :

ACTA, SOPA, PIPA

gold
March 30, 2012 2:08 AM

ISP will be very interest in monitoring people like
megastar, superstar, movie actor. This is money business for ISP to spy on it. ISP they spy on the people who can change the world and for money.

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