Congress has voted to overturn a FCC rule that required internet providers to get consumers permission before sharing their browsing history. The new resolution is now just waiting for a final signature from the president before restrictions are lifted and a user’s online activity becomes a sellable commodity.
When it comes to internet privacy, there is a lot of confusion about what type of information is actually recorded. Every time you open a browser window your internet service provider (ISP) knows what websites you visit and has access to any non-encrypted data. People often try to mask their activity by using a browsers “incognito” mode or by clearing their online cache, but ultimately, these things do very little. If you browse incognito, your browser client (Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome) will not track your data, but any website you access is still routed through your ISP. This means that every webpage you browse, every embarrassing medical condition you look up, or dating profile you visit, is stored in a database somewhere. Now, all of this information is about to be available to the highest bidder.
With all of that in mind, you probably want to know what you can do to protect your privacy. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Browsing the internet is a lot like talking to friends in a crowded restaurant. You can try to be quiet, or choose a table in the corner, but it’s difficult to be completely anonymous and if some tries hard enough, they can probably eavesdrop on your conversation. Things like the previously mentioned “incognito” modes or search scrambler plugins prevent your friends and family from seeing your activity but will not block your ISP. Many apps and search engines offer “don’t track” options and while these may prevent that particular app from monetizing your data, your activity still gets funneled through a pipeline that your ISP controls. Actual anonymization methods do exist but they require a good deal more effort and all have drawbacks.
One of the best methods of keeping your data private from your ISP is to use a VPN service. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and is a way to ensure that your activity is masked behind an encrypted private channel. Most VPNs are paid services that you can use for either desktop or mobile computing. There are free versions of VPNs, but it should be noted that you get what you pay for. The way a VPN works is that your data gets encrypted and then routed through a server bank. If your ISP tries to spy on your activity, they will see traffic originate from a random server as opposed to your house. A drawback to a VPN service is that that particular provider will still know what sites you visit, but if you choose a respectable company, your information will be anonymized or at the very least, protected from resale.
The second option is Tor software. Tor itself is completely legal but often gets a bad reputation because it is commonly linked to criminal activity. The way Tor works is that it creates a global network of volunteer servers. Whenever a Tor client tries to access a website, the data is bounced around the network and is rerouted through another client before it is returned. In this way, it is nearly impossible to discern where the original data request came from. Unfortunately, Tor is far from an ideal solution. Many websites block access from Tor browsers because it is impossible to monetize the traffic. Additionally, because data requests have to travel through the network, browsing speeds are notoriously slow. Lastly, Tor only protects data sent through the client; this means that if you use any other network based communication; you will not be afforded the same protections.
For most private users, either of these options may be a bit extreme. A simpler solution is often the better choice and one of the easiest is to simply consider alternative ISP providers. The biggest ISP providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, lobbied in favor of removing the data protection laws because they stand to make billions of dollars from the sale of user data. Smaller ISP providers have less to gain and many have taken a stance to side with consumers over data protection. If data privacy is important to you it is essential that you research your options and choose a provider that you can trust.