An internet service provider (ISP) is whichever company provides you the connection to the internet on the device you’re using. Aside from the ability to give or take away your access to YouTube, what other powers does it have? Can the ISP see what you’re downloading? And if so, can you stop it?
Can my ISP see my downloads?
Technically, your ISP could see what you’re downloading over an unsecure connection as the traffic does pass through their infrastructure. But there are caveats:
- If the website you’re using has some sort of encryption (just having https:// is enough), the ISP can’t tell what exact file you’re downloading.
- However, the ISP can tell what site you’re downloading from and what size the file is, which gives them a way to guess what you’re doing.
- The ISP can also tell if you’re using torrents by looking at the connection patterns: since torrents rely on multiple people sharing the file, the ISP can notice the multiple upload streams as well multiple connections to different IP (Internet Protocol) addresses that make it work.
Does the ISP care about file downloads?
When it comes to downloading files, most of the time, ISPs care about the fact that you’re taking a lot of bandwidth more than what you’re doing with it specifically. This means that ISPs are mainly interested in detecting downloads and use that information to engage in bandwidth throttling – mainly slowing down your connection if you show signs of massive downloads.
However, torrents are different. There are two types of companies that really care about torrenting: media companies and copyright trolls.
- Media companies hold rights to their media and it’s against the law to download anything that’s copyrighted. So they – or companies they hire – will go to torrent websites, see who’s downloading and uploading what (your IP is shown on any torrent you’re sharing), and then they send letters to ISPs or even you to stop you from doing that.
- Copyright trolls are companies that do this for one specific purpose: to get an out-of-court settlement by threatening people who download stuff illegally with massive fines.
Disclaimer: Surfshark does not encourage using a VPN in any way that would potentially violate the law or Terms of Service of other service providers.
How long does an ISP keep browsing records?
This section can start with “well, it depends” – twice! Because it depends on whether the ISP is required (or even allowed) to keep records and whether it can keep browsing records.
If there’s anything approaching a universal rule of the thumb, it’s that ISPs can be mandated to keep logs of the past 6-12 months. However, this varies by country.
Take Australia, for example. Ozzie law demands that records be kept for 2 years. But the law also says that it’s not browsing data, but email senders and recipients, and who had what IP address when.
When in doubt, research your local laws.
How do I keep the ISP from seeing what I’m downloading?
Simple, really: you can keep your ISP from seeing what you’re downloading by getting a VPN: it encrypts your data (so the ISP can’t read it) and routes it via a VPN server (so the ISP doesn’t know what websites you’re visiting).
Without a VPN
With a VPN
Can see the website you’re connecting to
Can see that you’re connecting to a VPN server
Can see a heavy traffic load
Can see a heavy traffic load
Can see download-like traffic patterns
Can only see that it’s VPN traffic
Can record your browsing data
Can’t record anything but VPN usage
On the internet, nobody knows you’re a cat (if you’re using a VPN)
As the go-between between you and the wider internet, an ISP has the potential to record and store a lot of data on your online activities. That said, what they can actually do (or have to do) heavily depends on the local law. But in any case, if you really want your ISP to have no clue what you’re doing online, get a trustworthy VPN like Surfshark and hide your traffic.