Dystopian data: How my ISP got me blacklisted from my dream school

Privacy news
3 mins
Could your search history affect your education?

NOTE: This post was originally published on July 26, 2017

The following is part of a fictitious series that looks at the dangers of internet privacy abuse. ExpressVPN delves into a dark, but very realistic future where ISPs routinely sell your private data to the highest bidder.

Nellie stared at the two nearly identical packets on her desk and realized she was sweating—this was a tough decision.

It was 4:30 pm on Friday, 12/18/2020. Only two weeks until the application deadline. Time to go up the chain of command.

Nellie strode to the big door in the corner, the one that said “Jacqueline Garmin, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Georgetown University.” She knocked twice.

“Come in!”

“Hi Dean Garmin, hope this isn’t a bad time…”

Dean Garmin swiveled. “Hey Nellie; what’s up?” It was clear from her voice that it was, in fact, a bad time.

“I’m down to two applications today, and they’re both final round material as far as I can tell.”

Dean Garmin squinted at the packets in Nellie’s hand. “Let me take a look.” Nellie placed them on the Dean’s desk: Omar Shafi from Hoboken High School and Justin Yang from Sacramento Academy.

“They’re both student council presidents,” continued Nellie as Dean Garmin thumbed carefully through each document. “They’re both pretty keen on Near Eastern studies, and oddly enough they both play the bassoon.”

Dean Garmin grimaced, still flipping. “No meaningful discrepancies?”

Nellie hesitated. “Well, Omar’s family is from Jordan and Justin is 3rd generation Chinese…” Dean Garmin cut her off with a concerned look. Not discriminating based on race or national origin is Admissions 101. “I didn’t mean we should…” said Nellie. “It’s fine,” said Dean Garmin as she continued reading.

The room was silent for several seconds except for the shuffling of paper. Dean Garmin’s eyes seemed to be moving independently, like a chameleon, one eye on each application.

“Here we go,” she said finally, pointing to the last page of the packet on her left. “Omar’s been flagged. The report from his ISP says he’s browsed several websites about… ‘jihad’”.

“Yes, I saw that,” said Nellie. “But he’s a prospective Near Eastern studies major, doesn’t it make sense that he would do research on Islam?”

Dean Garmin sighed heavily. “Look, I’m not saying he’s a terrorist or anything. He’s probably a great kid, and he’d more than likely do very well here. But Justin’s online record is clean.” Another long pause. “Which one would you rather go to college with?”

Nellie nodded. “I guess it’s Justin, then.”

“It’s a tough process, I know,” said Dean Garmin, sensing the disappointment in Nellie’s voice. “But believe me, it used to be a lot harder before we started buying these ISP reports. These keyword targeting algorithms can help us out with the heavy lifting, especially at crunch time.” Dean Garmin glanced at the clock. “Speaking of…”

“Right,” said Nellie, scooping up both reports. “Thanks, Dean Garmin.”

“Anytime. Oh, one more thing, Nellie.”

Nellie stopped in the doorway.

“When you draft Omar’s rejection letter, you don’t need to mention that we know about the jihad thing. Just the usual ‘we received so many amazing applications this year’ rigamarole. We don’t want people to think we spy on students.”

“Of course,” said Nellie. What a ridiculous notion.

Don’t trust your ISP with your web history. Use a VPN to never let them have it in the first place. ExpressVPN encrypts your traffic and hides its destination from your ISP, giving them nothing to blackmail you with in not-so-distant dystopias like these.