For a few years now, Australian ISPs have been required to retain metadata about your online communications. What does this metadata include? Here’s the gist of it:
- The source and destination of the communication – which includes “Identifiers of a related account, service or device from [and to] which the communication has been sent by means of the relevant service.”
- The method of communication (voice, SMS, email, chat apps, forums, social media, etc.).
- What type of service you use (ADSL, Wi-Fi, VoIP, cable, LTE, etc.).
- Your location at the start and end of the communication.
The government can access this info without any warrants, and the Attorney-General may extend that privilege to other third parties as they see fit. And, of course, there are growing worries regarding the confidentiality of your online chats – see more from ProPrivacy.
Sure, whenever you read about this online, you have people saying that ISPs aren’t obligated to store your browsing history. Since that’s the most revealing data about you, your privacy is mostly safe, right? Here’s the thing, though: your ISP can still see what websites you access and how you spend your time online.
Moreover, just because they aren’t obligated to retain that data, it’s not illegal to do so either. As government surveillance gets more dystopian by the year, it’s quite possible that legislation in the future will change to accommodate further data collection. So how do you prevent this? By using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), of course.
What Is a VPN?
As mentioned, your ISP can see every website you access. A VPN can prevent that by encrypting all your network data – essentially turning your online activity into gibberish to any outsiders, including your Internet provider. This also protects your credit card info, email logins, and other valuable data from cyber criminals.
If you haven’t heard, hackers can create fake Wi-Fi hotspots called “Evil Twins” that may perfectly mimic legit networks. Once you’re connected, the hacker has free rein to harvest all your data. However, the VPN encryption process starts before the data even leaves your device. That means you have nothing to worry about, even on exposed networks.
A VPN also hides your real IP address and replaces it with the one from the VPN server you connect to. Your IP reveals your approximate location (right down to the ZIP code in some cases), so this is a welcome layer of privacy between you and the Internet.
Of course, your ISP can still see you’re using a VPN. Furthermore, they can see the IP address of the server you connect to, as well as when you start using the VPN. They also still have your original IP, since they’re the ones who assign it to your device. However, that’s about all your ISP can see – which is a major improvement.
What Else Can a VPN Do?
By hiding your true IP, you can get around geo-restrictions and access content normally reserved for different regions. For example, you could connect to a VPN server in the US and access the Netflix US library of shows and movies. You can do this for all its international catalogs, as well as access region-exclusive platforms like BBC iPlayer.
Another benefit of VPNs is preventing bandwidth throttling from your provider. Remember how they could see all your traffic? Well, ISPs use that information to slow down your connection if you use the Internet for data-intensive activities, like streaming or downloading large files.
Since a VPN hides your online activity, your ISP can’t really do much about it. Sure, they could try throttling your entire connection. Although, unless you’re on a limited data plan and you’ve reached your cap, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.
All in all, VPNs are a great boon to your privacy – especially if data retention laws will be expanded in the future. The fact that they can prevent unfair practices like bandwidth throttling and let you access a whole new world of entertainment is just the icing on the cake.