Under the 2015 Data Retention Act, Australian ISPs are only obligated to retain certain metadata about your online communications. In theory, your browsing history should have remained safe. Except it hasn’t. In some cases, law enforcement received full URLs, revealing much more about the content you access than plain metadata should have allowed.
Even if they didn’t, this metadata has been used to hunt down the sources of journalists at least 20 times between 2018 and 2019. This has sparked controversy and left people understandably worried about their online privacy. Fortunately, you don’t need that kind of stress in your life. You can simply protect your privacy with a VPN, as well as safeguard your sensitive data as it’s sent over the web.
We’ll get to how you can do that in a second. But first, let’s take a look at what this metadata business is all about.
What Info Does Your ISP Have on You?
As mentioned, ISPs are required to retain certain details about your online communications for 24 months. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Source and destination of communication (including account, service, and/ or device identifiers for both)
- Communication channel (such as email, chat apps, forums, social media, etc.)
- The type of service used (Wi-Fi, ADSL, cable, LTE, etc.)
- Your location at the beginning and end of the communication
As mentioned, this metadata was accessed 20 times for some journalists, and used to hunt down their sources. And these are just cases that were publicized – who knows how many political opponents were taken down this way? It’s worse when you think about how the government can ask for all this data from your ISP without any warrants.
Plus, there’s no guarantee that your ISP isn’t already holding your browsing data. They’re not obligated to do so, but data retention laws are only expanding as time goes on. So how can a VPN help with all this? Read on to find out.
How to Protect Your Data with a VPN
So let’s say your ISP isn’t keeping tabs on your browsing habits – well, they can still see what websites you’re accessing in real time. You can prevent that by logging in to a VPN client, which will then encrypt (i.e. obfuscate) your data before it’s sent towards its destination. The only things your ISP will be able to see at that point are:
- Your IP address – they’re the ones who assign it to you, after all. This piece of data can reveal your approximate real life location. Keep this in mind for later.
- The fact that you’re connected to a VPN, as well as the IP address of the server you’re connected to.
- A timestamp of when you’ve started using the VPN, and how much data is transferred between you and the VPN server.
- Your web traffic, but in an encrypted form. Essentially gibberish to any outsiders trying to snoop in on your data, including hackers and government spy agencies.
That’s about it. Your encrypted data (such as passwords, credit card info, and any other sensitive stuff) will be safe from cyber attacks, and your privacy remains intact in the face of global surveillance.
Moreover, your IP address (and thus your physical location) is masked from the Internet at large. This can be a great way to protect yourself from anyone trying to find where you live, but it serves other purposes as well. For example, bypassing geo-restrictions and unlocking content you otherwise couldn’t access – such as Netflix’s US catalog.
Other Privacy-Enhancing Tips
Using a VPN in Australia (or anywhere else for that matter) is excellent for data safety, but it’s not a watertight solution. There are still ways you can be tracked online, even with a VPN. Fortunately, many of those tracking methods can be countered as well. Here’s what you need to know.
Deal with Cookies
Browser cookies are helpful in making your life easier on the web. For instance, they’re the ones keeping you logged in to online services so you don’t have to enter your account details every single session. However, they’re still a privacy nightmare due to how they’re used to track you around the web.
Fortunately, you can deal with them fairly easily by using Incognito Mode in your browser. Cookies are deleted automatically when you close your browser, so you don’t have to worry about clearing them manually.
Although, if you still want the convenience cookies bring, then we recommend some free tools like CCleaner. It lets you keep any cookies you need while clearing the rest, along with your browser history and other space wasters on your system.
Prevent Ad Tracking
Advertisers use ad tracking and analytics to create personalized profiles about you, to target you with creepily specific ads. The most known example of this practice is Google Analytics – and Google isn’t exactly known as a privacy-friendly company.
In any case, you can deal with ad tracking in your browser by using a content blocker like uBlock Origin or Privacy Badger. Not only do they prevent tracking, but they also block irritating ads, making web pages load faster and clearing up a lot of clutter.
Does that free game you play to pass the time on your commute really need access to your contacts or location data? Short answer: no. Giving most apps access to your location data can actually nullify the privacy offered by a VPN.
The New York Times have gone into a lot of depth to prove how creepy location tracking can get. Always be mindful of the permissions you give apps installed on your device. Here’s how to manage app permissions on most major operating systems – better late than never!