Just last week, Congress took a stand against your online privacy.
In a close vote along party lines, a regulation proposed by the FCC during the Obama administration was struck down. This regulation would have restricted what information ISP’s (internet service providers) could collect and sell about their customers.
That’s right, you don’t just have to worry about Google and Facebook sharing your personal data. Now your internet providers will also have free rein to spy on you and sell your private online activity to advertisers.
It’s a big victory for the corporate telco industry, who now have the chance to capitalize off users more than ever.
But for normal people who don’t want to be spied on every time they open their laptop, this vote is definitely something to worry about.
Privacy advocates and civil liberties groups are in an uproar since President Trump signed off on the bill last Monday.
Here’s what you need to know about the new law and how to protect yourself in this new, Big Brother era of the web.
What does this mean for the future of internet privacy?
The future of online privacy looks pretty bleak today.
Since the new regulations hadn’t gone into effect yet, the status quo will remain for now. However, this vote is a clear message that Congress is protecting the interests of the ISP’s and big corporations, not of citizens.
The repeal leaves the door wide open for data collection and exploitation. The FCC is forbidden from proposing a similar resolution, so it’s likely that the expansion of corporate spying into our personal information will only continue.
“You better believe the big ISP’s already have teams & plans in place to capitalize on this ruling,” tweeted Erica Baker, an engineer at Slack.
In response to backlash, Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have gone on record saying they will not sell individual users’ data.
If your provider starts selling your data, you might be given an “opt-out” choice. Most people, ISP executives figure, will never see this and thus won’t get the chance to preserve their privacy. You might not get a vote in Congress but at least you can make a stand for yourself by being aware in this way.
Even worse than the legal privacy violations, there will be an increased risk of hacking.
Experts from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit cybersecurity and civil liberties defense organization, explained about the bill: “Privacy and security are two sides of the same coin. Privacy is about controlling who has access to information about you, and security is how you maintain that control. You usually can’t break one without breaking the other, and that’s especially true in this context.”
The ISP’s mass collection of private data exposes users to many risks, including:
- Detailed profiles containing sensitive information create new targets for hackers
- ISP’s will intercept and remove encryption to get more data for advertisers, weakening your security and making it easier for hackers to spy on you
- ISP’s can insert ads into webpages you visit, opening up holes in your online security
- Spyware on devices bought from ISP’s will collect data and open the door for malware
I could go on… Point is, the risks are very real. As seen so far, the big ISP’s are hardly impenetrable fortresses of digital security, and other recent laws leave them basically off the hook if they accidentally expose your private information.
What you can do to protect yourself
It looks like a recipe for disaster. So is there any way to keep your personal data to yourself?
Since the vote, interest has boomed in VPN’s (virtual private networks.)
A VPN sends your data through a sort of digital tunnel, connecting your device to a secure private server, and hiding your activity from any prying eyes. (Hopefully – many of these services are now available and quality varies.)
VPN’s can be a good solution for protecting your data. However, they aren’t a magic bullet. Even if they effectively hide your activity from your ISP, you have to be sure that your VPN provider isn’t then going to sell your data!
Or worse, use your bandwidth as part of a botnet, as happened with the popular VPN Hola.
That said, with a good VPN, you should be protected from malware and general data collection.
Just steer clear of free VPN services. If they aren’t asking for money, they’re profiting off of you in some other way.
There’s no simple, easy way to keep advertisers’ hands off your data. For now, take what measures you can, such as setting up your own VPN, using encrypted apps for messaging and limiting what information the actual websites you visit can collect.
Pay close attention to your ISP’s terms of service and opt out of data collection whenever you can.
It’s definitely a good idea to use secure, encrypted email services and a private search engine instead of Google, Bing or Yahoo.