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Can My ISP See I’m Using a VPN or a Proxy?

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I’m living in the UK, using a well-known ISP-changer program. It gives me a different ISP address that says I’m in the Netherlands, Russia, or the USA. What exactly does my own ISP see when I use this? Can they still tell how much I download, for example? Can my ISP see I’m using such a thing?

This is an interesting question, particularly when it comes to understanding “IP-changing”  services.

First, I need to clear up some terminology to be sure we’re talking about the same thing.

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ISP versus IP

In your question, you say that you’re “using an ISP-changer program.” I think you mean IP, not ISP.

Someone's Peeking! Your ISP is your Internet Service Provider. They’re the company from which you get access to the internet, and to which you connect your computer and other internet-enabled equipment.

Your IP is your Internet Protocol (IP) address. That’s the unique number that identifies your specific internet connection1. Your IP address is provided by your ISP when you connect.

“Changer” programs

When you connect to a site or service online — even something as simple as a website such as Ask Leo! — that site’s servers have access to the IP address from which you connected: your IP address. This is required so the server knows where to send the data you requested.

You can use programs or services to make it look like you’re coming from a different IP address — what I think you’re referring to as a “changer”. Instead of your own home IP address, the remote service sees something else. For example, the Ask Leo! server would see the IP address of this changing service, rather than yours.

You haven’t changed your ISP at all; the same company still provides your internet connection. You’re not really changing your IP address either, as you’re still connected to the internet using the IP address assigned by your ISP.

The only thing that changes is the IP address that you appear to be at, as seen at the other end of the connections you make.

It sounds like I’m being pedantic, but when we talk about things like security, we have to use correct terminology to make sure that we’re talking about the same thing.

A more correct way to phrase what you’re attempting is: you want to hide your IP address as you use the internet.

Different approaches to hiding your IP address

When it comes to hiding your IP address, there are three different approaches2.

Proxies. These are services that you connect to normally that then make all subsequent requests on your behalf. You may have seen proxy configuration options in your web browser, and indeed, they are typically limited only to handling web-browsing traffic. Other than configuring the proxy in your browser, there’s no additional change to your system. In practice, they’re rare outside of the corporate environment.

VPNs. These services act similarly to proxies, except they handle all of your internet traffic. This requires that you install or configure a VPN service in your operating system, not just your browser. When you connect to anything on the internet, that request is sent first to the VPN service, and from there makes its way to whatever site or service you’re trying to use. To that site or service, you “look like” you’re coming from the VPN’s IP address, not your own.

TOR. This is, in a way, a special case of a VPN, or perhaps a proxy on steroids. It is specifically targeted at web browsing, though I understand it can be used for other things. Rather than being a single server or service, you install a special browser, and your traffic is routed through a series of semi-randomly selected intermediate nodes until it reaches its destination. To the destination site or server, it “looks like” you’re coming from the last node in your path, referred to as an exit node.

In all three cases, you still connect to the internet using your IP address, but each has a different impact on how easy it is to see your IP address and the data you’re sending and receiving.

So your question might be further refined to “Can my ISP see that I’m using a VPN, proxy, or TOR?”

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. But what may matter more is what else they (and anyone in between) can or cannot see.

Who sees what

Exactly who sees what depends on the service you’re using.

Proxy

  • Your ISP can see you’re using a proxy, and what specific proxy you’re using. Depending on the proxy, your ISP may even be able to see the sites and services you’re visiting, and in the worst case, the data you’re sending and receiving.
  • The site or service you’re visiting can see your data, of course, but will see only the IP address of the proxy.
  • The proxy service can see everything: your IP address, who you’re connecting to, and the data you’re exchanging. While normally that doesn’t include data encrypted using https, in the case of some corporate proxies, it may.

VPN

  • Your ISP can see you’re using a VPN, and what specific VPN service you’re using; that’s all.
  • The site or service you visit can see your data, of course, but will see only the IP address of the VPN.
  • The VPN service can see almost everything: your IP address, who you’re connecting to, and any unencrypted data you’re exchanging.

TOR

  • Your ISP can see you’re using TOR, and how you are connecting to the TOR network; that’s all.
  • The site or service you’re visiting can see your data, of course, but will see only the IP address of the TOR exit node.
  • The last node in your data’s path across the TOR network can see who you’re connecting to and any unencrypted data you’re exchanging. Intermediate nodes cannot.

What your ISP still sees

As I mentioned, your ISP can generally see that you are using one of these services. In most cases, they cannot see what websites or other services you connect to through these services, however.

What your ISP can see, however, is how much data you’re transferring. They may not know what it is, but if you’re downloading a lot, they’ll certainly see that it’s a lot.

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Footnotes & References

1: Your ISP-provided IP address is associated with the only, or the first, device connected to the internet. Typically, this is your router.

2: OK, perhaps more, but these are the three most average computer users will be familiar with.

Posted: May 21, 2020 in: Network IP Addressing
Shortlink: https://askleo.com/10437
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I'm Leo Notenboom and I've been playing with computers since I took a required programming class in 1976. I spent over 18 years as a software engineer at Microsoft, and after "retiring" in 2001 I started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place to help you find answers and become more confident using this amazing technology at our fingertips. More about Leo.

19 comments on “Can My ISP See I’m Using a VPN or a Proxy?”

  1. You got to realize that no anonymization service is 100% watertight.
    Just depends on the money, and efforts, the adversary is willing or capable to use to spy on you.
    A work around might be to install the anonymization program on a thumbdrive for use in a internet cafe, or access the internet from another location (wifi spot, and such). That’s a shure thing to hide your physical address.
    And disable javascript of course.
    But remember the NSA has backdoors in most operating systems in use nowadays.
    So if you’re really into something meet-up instead of web-up.

    Reply
    • I don’t believe that “the NSA has backdoors in most operating systems in use nowadays” at all. If they have access anywhere it’s much more leveraged at the ISP/infrastructure level. Even there I don’t think things are quite as bad as most of the current alarmist news would have us believe. Not that things aren’t bad, but not “eavesdropping on everyone” bad. We’re just not that interesting.

      Reply
    • There is planty of free open source OS that NSA or any other agncy upper hand on it , pickup the one you want and monitor traffic with 3d part hardware tools and see if anyone realy spy on you .

      Reply
  2. good article I have actually been curious about that for a while, if an ISP such as comcast could see what was going on to and from the router to the vpn, I always assumed they could and the only way around that would be to setup and entire vpn server in my home before their router, to be honest they can keep watching me they already have my account numbers.

    Reply
  3. My question is then, if you were to create your own VPN in your home and have it connected to your ISP gateway, could they not still see were you are going? The VPN connection still has to go through their network. Were as if you were to pay for a VPN service they would see you connect to a VPN rather than seeing your VPN connect to were ever you were visiting. Is my logic correct?

    Reply
  4. How to hide data from aggressive government enforcement. In my part of the world i can see, i can listen but i cant speak. Even i am scared to say a thing against aggressive government enforcements on twitter or Facebook. If i use TOR to reach twitter or Facebook with a fake ID can my ISP track me and my contents of speech? If my opinion is not liked by aggressive government enforcements would they be able to track me and put me in their torture cells.

    Reply
    • This is a relevant question in all parts of the world, as we see growing, totalitarian tendencies, also in Western countries.
      I am here out of the same concern.
      Thank you for your bravery, Faheem. Freedom of opinion and freedom of speech are important, basic values that need protection, and so do we.

      Reply
    • Yes if you use Tor and they know they will brick your desktop or laptop computer
      also with all them people working at Ft. Meade, you will get caught and if you’re
      game enough you better use a crap laptop because if you use a new computer
      say good by to it unless you have information in it you need don’t chance it,.

      Reply
  5. A VPN encryption service or proxy server, whether its your own or purchased online, hides the websites you are visiting from the ISP. The real question I have is, does the ISP have legal authority to deny your service if they cannot “see” the websites your visiting.

    Reply
    • “Legal” -> I am not a lawyer. However I would expect that, yes, an ISP has every right to control how you use their service. All part of the terms of service you agreed to when you signed up.

      Reply
        • It would have nothing to do with net neutrality. Your ISP is providing your internet connection. They are actually the service that sends you to different pages on the internet, so obviously their equipment can see where you are going. The likelihood that some human being is sitting there watching you is very slim – unless you are a high profile figure or doing something illegal.

          Reply
          • It’s not like someone is re watching you’re every move. An analyst will likely look at numbers, notice something out of norm, and start monitoring irregularities. So if you’re online behavior is in line with the average user, it’s unlikely a gov employee will be peering in.

            I suspect ISPs work very closely with the gov. For example, if they notice that a customer is connecting to multiple proxy servers frequently and everyone else in that area is in the norm, they could tip the the gov and let them slip into their back door and access data.

            ISP already has all your info: name, address, etc. Now gov can start monitoring. A tiny slip up can give them information. Don’t forget about the PATRIOT act (if you’re a U.S. citizen).

  6. What has me looking this far, is my own situation. I have downloaded copyrighted material (movies) from a torrent site such as ‘thepiratebay.com’ , and was severely legally reprimanded by my ISP (ATT) for having done that. They got the tip from Warner Brothers, who had a ‘snoop bug’ or something at the download site (Piratebay), and they told ATT to ‘make me stop or else: ‘jail time, fines, etc.’ So, as ATT was notified about my copyright infringement through bittorrent and their snoop on piratebay, ATT tells me they will kick me out of all internet use forever if I keep doing it. That’s why I want to know about Virtual PRIVATE networking. But nobody worth hearing from will tell HOW to do it, since I’m sure they think I’m a crook for downloading copyrighted movies for my own watching for free. I do NOT share them with anyone, and do NOT think I am evil for watching the downloaded movie from pirate bay. Of course, the guy with the Gold makes the Rules, and the cops are on his side. Who in their right mind would prosper from agreeing with me, and fighting the Gold? I DO want to do it again; I’m retired and old and alone. These movies are a comfort to me, and I’ve paid my dues at the theaters; now I want to watch them from my computer many times again, without having to buy a disc of it again. “I” think there are many people out there who want to download movies, too, for their OWN use, not to make bootleg copies for $$. I assume you won’t touch this topic with a 10′ pole–

    Reply
    • I’m not touching your objective, but want to offer a few points to think about. First, like most people in the U.S. you probably have only one reasonable choice for an ISP. If AT&T entirely bans you from internet access, what are you going to do?

      If your objective is not to pay money, know that there are several free movie sites online. For some of these you don’t even have to sign up. Of course, you won’t get the latest movies, but try these free sites first to see if you can satisfy your amusement needs.

      Have you read Pirate Bay’s FAQ on its home page? They warn you, in multiple ways, that what you’re doing is illegal and you will be prosecuted. What part of this don’t you understand?

      You may not know much about how TOR or VPNs work and somehow think that a VPN is some type of magic solution for your needs. Read Leo’s article again. A VPN won’t save you, even if the middle part of the acronym is PRIVATE. Also consider that Warner Brothers and AT&T have vastly more resources in defeating you than you can bring to the fight. You’ve already experienced this by your own admission. In other words, you’re taking a risk.

      So, let’s say you get a VPN service, on top of your bittorrent. These don’t present an obstacle to law enforcement, not if they decide to go after you. Of course, you would have to pay for a reliable and secure VPN service, so in the end you may not be saving much money. Finally, here is the kicker about a VPN service: you have no idea who the company behind your VPN is and what they do with your information. For all you know, your VPN may be affiliated with AT&T or sell your information to AT&T.

      Reply

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