Concerns about online privacy are nothing new. But now there’s a major cause for concern. Last month, Congress ripped a page out of 1984’s playbook and repealed the Federal Communications Commission’s “Broadband Privacy Rules.”
The Obama-era rules were meant to safeguard consumers’ online browsing history and personal data (e.g. health and financial information). Now online privacy has been turned upside down.
Here’s what consumers are losing and what internet service providers (ISPs) are gaining, plus how to fight back.
What Consumers Are Losing: Privacy Protection
The Broadband Privacy Rules were initially created to protect consumers’ online privacy. They would have required internet service providers (ISPs) to:
Tell Consumers What Type of Data Was Collected. ISPs also would’ve had to disclose how the data was used, and who it was shared with. Previously, none of that information had ever been made available to consumers.
Get Consumers’ Permission. Before using or sharing personal information like health and financial data, browsing history, and Social Security Numbers, ISPs would’ve needed permission.
Allow Consumers to Easily Opt-Out. Individuals wouldn’t need to resort to extreme measures to get out of sharing information with ISPs.
Notify Customers and Law Enforcement. When a breach occurred, ISPs would’ve been required to immediately notify authorities and customers.
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Now all of those safeguards have been torpedoed by Congress. ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T can sell your personal data to the highest bidder. And it gets worse. The FCC isn’t “allowed” to adopt similar rules to protect you in the future. Scary stuff.
What ISPs Are Gaining: Unregulated Access With No Rules
ISPs no longer need permission to access consumers’ personal privacy. Social Security Numbers, location data, app usage history, personal health and financial information, and customer browsing habits are all ripe for the picking.
And what are ISPs planning to do with their newfound freedom? Lots of things like:
Mine Your Data and Store It in Databases. They plan on collecting everything (emails, texts, financials, health, purchases, browsing history) and storing it in databases.
Sell Your Data to the Highest Bidder. Your emails, geolocation, health information, all of that data will be up for sale. Let’s say you search “heart attack symptoms,” that information could potentially be bought by an insurance company. Feel your blood pressure rising, yet?
Create Highly Targeted Ads. While Google and Facebook already use data to target you with ads, ISPs plan to create highly targeted ads using the sensitive data they’ve collected. Ads won’t just be based off of your Amazon search history, they’ll be based off of your personal emails and text messages, too.
Take Away Opt-In and Opt-Out. Remember those little check boxes that allow you to opt-in (or opt-out) of a newsletter? Yeah, soon they won’t exist anymore. ISPs don’t have to ask your permission anymore. Hope you like that Jelly of the Month Club newsletter (you didn’t sign up for).
What Happens Next: Look for Alternative Ways to Safeguard Privacy
ISPs are currently living the dream, but for the rest of us there’s still hope. Here are a few ways you can still protect your online privacy.
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VPN. The virtual private network (VPN) creates an encrypted connection between your computer or mobile device and a private service. However the level of protection is limited. Once you’ve logged into a website like Amazon, the site can still track your activities. And law enforcement can still request your info from VPN companies, ISPs are unable to see your online activity.
Before selecting a VPN, do your research. Avoid free VPN services, which tend to be sketchy. Instead stick with a paid one that offers the level of security you need, or set up your own.
Tor. The free software “anonymizes” you to protect your data. However, it offers a slower, less convenient browsing experience.
Encrypted Apps. Before you download that app, check to see if it’s encrypted. Encrypted apps will sensitive data.
HTTPS. Stick to sites that use HTTPS, which limit the amount of information ISPs can see. ISPs can only collect the general domain name and when you’re visiting it, not the individual pages you’re on or what info you’re sending.
Consumers can’t undo what has been done, but by employing one or more of these tools, they can still safeguard their online data.