Internet Providers are Selling your browser history!

The great American salesmen in Washington have sold us out to the highest bidding lobbyists...again. This time they sold us out to the Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Despite massive public criticism, the FCC's Ajit Pai is rewriting the rules on your browser history. Now ISPs can not only retain your browsing history and preference, they can sell them out to the highest bidder. Yes, your private Google searches and personal browsing history are now assets to the ISP's who provide your Internet. And yes, they can and will sell your information without your permission, consent or knowledge. "What can I do to prevent the unbridled sale of my browsing habits?" Might be one of your logical questions and after a moment of reflection you might ask, “What’s in it for me?”

NO PEEKING. The big concern for most people is privacy and prevention. Supporters of this change cry, “Don’t use providers who sell your information.” That would have been easy in 1999 when there were thousands of dial-up Internet providers. Now, there are only a small handful of providers who control their markets and have little overlap or competition. Dallas Texas, as an example, only has Spectrum Internet (formerly Time Warner) and AT&T U-verse available in certain areas. Verizon Fios is available in other areas, but not everywhere. There are wireless options, but currently 4G LTE is only capable of 5 and 12 Mbps (according to Verizon). For truly high speed service (45 - 60 Mbps), I only have 2 options. In our modern society where much of our economy, business, and messaging are all run through the Internet, makes avoiding those providers is almost impossible. Try paying your bills with checks and stamped envelopes for a month and see if you don’t miss the Internet. The crux of the matter is that the Internet has become so ingrained in our daily life that its service providers should be considered a public utility.

WTF. To clear the air a little, let's discuss the actual issue. The rule change was something that the FCC under Obama was already implementing. Now ISP’s don't have to fear Obama-era rules derailing the sales efforts. The public uproar is, of course, too little, too late. ISP’s have been recording and watching your browsing history and preferences all along. Enter the Trump era and the spirit of deregulation to remove restrictive government regulations. In this case the deregulation, while freeing only a small number of businesses, does not benefit the end user with competitive options or improved service. As a result ISP’s can openly sell the information and are under no obligation to return the favor, leaving us wondering what’s really going on here. Ajit Pai and his giant coffee cup think it's a path to a better Internet. Watch him speak about it and see if you can detect his subtle, “I know what you’re really asking, but here’s my spin”, smirk when describing the benefits of this or Net Neutrality (topic to be covered later). I'm sure the ISP’s think he's doing an excellent job considering their 2016 lobbying spend was slightly over $86 million (according to He must have some giant earmuffs that match his coffee cup and keep the roar of the public outcry to a minimum.

SOLUTIONS NOT COMPLAINTS. Once the dark reality of a government by the lobby for the lobby has fully sunk in, one might ask, “What can I do to prevent this invasion of my privacy?” One simple solution is to get a “No Log” Virtual Private Network (VPN) that creates an encrypted tunnel from your computer to the VPN provider. From there, your browsing will be invisible, at least to your ISP. The key word in that service is “NO LOG,” meaning they don’t record your browsing or anything you do. To be sure, read your VPN privacy agreements and terms of use to see what they track, if anything. Keep in mind this protection is only as good as the VPN provider’s word and their reputation. While no guarantee it’s better than what’s offered by the ISP’s, but read carefully.

THAT CAN’T BE ALL. Another option is to use the Tor virtual network which conceals both your identity and your location. On the surface, this seems like a good solution; however, the Tor browsing network was created to allow users to hide their identity while browsing the "Dark Web", mainly a bunch of sites with illegal stuff. I would recommend extreme caution in any interaction, and I wouldn't recommend interacting with any of its cohorts, many of which are engaged in illegal activities. Penalties in some cases could involve prison or at a minimum, fines. Fortunately you’re not limited to the Dark Web. You can browse the entire Internet from behind this proxy of randomized connections with relative confidence of anonymity. However, this silver lining doesn’t come without its cloud. Tor significantly reduces your overall speed, making some video streaming difficult or impossible. Definitely, no 4k video through Tor, yet.

BURN BABY, BURN! If those are too technical or too cumbersome, you might try the disposable route or what I call the "Burner Computer”. Similar to a "Burner phone", it's a computer you pay cash for and use only on a public wifi. This eliminates the ISP’s ability to pinpoint who you are. Your traffic might be logged, but that search for “Nude underwater basket weaving” could have come from any of the other Starbucks patrons also sharing the public Wifi. Keep in mind that as soon as you use a credit card or login to a site, you’re no longer anonymous, at least to the site you’ve logged into or the retailer to whom you’ve disclosed your card info. So be sure to use Bitcoins (anonymous digital currency) and don’t login. I won’t go into detail on what Bitcoin is, but here’s a great video for the curious. This too has its costs and drawbacks. Plus, it’s not as comfy as your recliner or as convenient as your home office.

NOW THE UGLY. These solutions will eliminate your ISP as an aggregating source of all your browsing habits, and keep them from profiting off your quirks. While this is a step in the right direction, what impact will these measures have? Can you keep your idiosyncrasies private? Unfortunately the answer is, NO. The sale and trade of your spending habits, etc. is nothing new. It started back in the early days with credit cards. Marketing firms have routinely bought and sold customer data regarding credit card purchase information and spending data from retailers, convenient stores, and restaurants. Now, they regularly trade your info around to target market segments and various analytics services. Have you ever wondered why ads start showing up for shoes shortly after you’ve browsed for that same pair somewhere else? The sad truth is that your Internet privacy is only a small piece of the marketing universe, although one that has seen explosive growth over the past two decades. Having your personal info tossed around like a beachball at a concert definitely feels dirty. These digital data brokers have come into a golden age of personal data exchange. Their ponds have grown from credit card spending habits to an ocean of spending, browsing, and social habits.

WHO ARE “THEY”? These purveyors of private info, have been around for a while and the Internet has made a place for them to flourish. They’ve recently doubled their industry and grown from a small group of four or five to an industry with several players at different levels. Currently there are nine major Data Brokers with others who either play in certain niches or are focused only in certain markets. For an idea of where your data is, here’s a quick list of the nine I found with the title/description from their home page, just to show how your data’s being sold.


Company Public descriptives provided by company
Acxiom Identity Resolution & People-Based Marketing
Corelogic a leading provider of consumer, financial and property information, analytics and services to business and government
Datalogix (now part of Oracle) provide comprehensive consumer profiles that will power personalization across digital, mobile, offline and TV
eBureau Data-Driven Solutions For Making Critical Decisions Throughout the Customer Lifecycle
ID Analytics Credit and Fraud Risk Solutions & Analytics – ID Analytics
Intelius Want to find someone? Do a confidential people search to find their contact info!
PeekYou Free People Search
Towerdata (formerly Rapleaf) TowerData provides expert services in email validation, email intelligence, and email appending services.
Recorded Future Threat Intelligence Powered by Machine Learning


WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE. Given that the options I’ve offered so far aren’t ideal, you have to weigh several factors that revolve around your privacy needs. “So, is it worth your time and trouble to invest in a VPN, use the Tor network or operate with burners…?” My answer is fairly simple. If it's something you don't want ANYONE to see, then it probably shouldn't be on the Internet. If it's only available through the Internet, then you should go with either the Tor network, or the "Burner Computer". While the “No Log” VPN is easier, it still doesn’t completely anonymize you, but it will eliminate your ISP from the list of prying eyes. All of these are extreme measures meant for extreme circumstances. Buying a pair of shoes, while your ISP watches may not be the end of the world, even if they make a quick buck selling that info to the company who didn’t get the sale. Also, keep in mind they don't sell your data specifically. You can’t call and order your ex’s browsing history or publicly disclose the browsing habits of your Senator. All the browsing data gets lumped in with all the other ISP subscribers who happen to use that provider, which includes other members of your household who may be looking for Pokemon cards or Minecraft tips. So treat it like the purchase of a safe with consideration for its contents. If you want to protect your million dollar gold stash, use every available method with the most secure safe you can find. If you want to protect your collection of popsicle sticks, maybe a simple frame will work.

Steve Lilley's picture
Author: Steve Lilley