Dystopian data: How my ISP blackmailed me with my own browsing habits

Privacy news
4 mins
ISP data blackmail

NOTE: This post was originally published on June 30, 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.

It was around the summer of 2021. I had split with my wife over Christmas and found myself in the middle of what was becoming quite a bitter custody battle for the three kids. We’d managed to keep it quite civil so far, we both just wanted what is best for the children after all, but I wasn’t looking forward to this morning’s court visit.

I was about to leave home when the phone rang.

“Hi there! I’m Bethany, and I’m a Personal Identity Securement Specialist. How are you today?”

“Umm, good… Sorry, who is this?” I stammered.

“That’s great! I’m a Personal Identity Securement Specialist at MegaLine Internet, and this is a courtesy call to let you know that your internet history is a little unconventional and you could be denied credit, health insurance, employment, or worse…”

I was skeptical, of course. It’s probably just another sales call.

“Worse? Like how?”

“Have you ever searched for a news story about terrorism or ISIS?”, Bethany asked.

“Well, of course, but only to read the news story.”, I replied while trying my best not to sound defensive.

Bethany paused, then continued, “How about a news story on child predators? I see here on August 23rd, 2020 you visited a page about an online pedophile ring in London.”

“Without context, my searches made me look like a monster”

Damn. Without context, my searches made me look like a monster. I didn’t like where this was going, and I could feel my stomach start to churn.

Like most people, the internet is my life. The world wide web is my primary source of entertainment, information, and argument settling. As such, my search history, probably much like yours, is quite… eclectic. To think others can see things I look at in private is chilling.

Bethany pressed on, “Can you imagine this information in open court, in the hands of an ex-spouse, or at a child custody hearing?”

Obviously, I was shocked to hear this. Does my ISP know I am divorced and in the middle of a custody battle?

I paused to think, so Bethany tried a different tactic, “Have you ever googled symptoms and ended up on a site which lists cancer as a possible cause? Your search history can affect your insurance rates.”

“But… Is… Isn’t there some law preventing you people from seeing all this stuff?”, I stuttered, getting more annoyed by the second.

“Oh, of course not. This information is available to anyone at any time. With the recent expansion of the PATRIOT ACT and Freedom of Information Act, this is all perfectly Constitutional!”, she cooed.

While talking to Bethany, I quickly opened my laptop and looked up MegaLine’s website, and sure enough, on the terms page, I could see they reserved the right to sell “Target Ad Packs,” which included names, emails, phone numbers, browser history, and buying habits of customers.

My jaw dropped.

Bethany was telling the truth, but it all sounded so…. immoral. Anyone could send my life into a tailspin with a Target Ad Pack purchase from my internet service provider (ISP).

She continued, “But for a monthly ‘internet protection fee,’ you can secure your personal data and remove it from any purchasable Target Ad Packs!”

“I was annoyed my ISP could sell my data without permission”

Frankly, I was annoyed my ISP could sell my data without permission. Then have the audacity to charge me not to release it!

Bethany reeled off the package prices. They weren’t cheap.

“This is blackmail!” I shouted at the phone.

Bethany deflected, “We’re sensitive to your concerns and can remove your details from the Target Ad Packs for a monthly fee to cover admin costs.”

Could my wife’s attorney buy my browsing data from my ISP and use it against me in our custody case? I doubted it, but Bethany seemed to think so.

It seems I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t think my wife was that ruthless. But her lawyers? Probably.

And what if the kids got dragged into this? They use the internet at my place all the time. As a parent, I wouldn’t want that public.

Bethany piped up, sensing a sale, no doubt, “The internet protection fee really is the best option …. if you value your family’s privacy.”

She was right; I had to pay. I can’t risk sensitive data about me or my kids getting into nefarious hands right now. I was lucky that I could afford to pay up. But what if I couldn’t? How many lives could this ISP data rule ruin?

More than I could possibly imagine, as it turns out.

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.

Johnny 5 is the founding editor of the blog and writes about pressing technology issues. From important cat privacy stories to governments and corporations that overstep their boundaries, Johnny covers it all.