Last year, the FCC passed rules that restricted internet service providers, both home and mobile, to only being able to disclose customers’ online habits on an opt-in basis – you would have to explicitly say they could, versus having to find some obscure sub-page on their web site to opt out. But like so many other protections for everyday people, those have gone out the window, giving your ISP the right to sell everything they can gather about you to the highest bidder.
Every web site you visit, from shopping sites to torrent hosts to medical resources, will now be up for sale, for no other reason than because these corporations don’t think they’re profiting enough from those $50-a-month service packages they’re selling you. They’ll know about your medical conditions. They’ll know what porn you watch. They’ll know if you’re questioning your gender or sexual orientation, and if you’re a teenager doing it on your parents’ computer, they’ll show your parents ads based on that, and no amount of browser history clearing will save you.
Chrome’s Incognito Mode won’t help. HTTPS will only keep them from tracking what you do on a site, not the fact that you’re visiting it – though it’s still worth installing the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s HTTPS Everywhere browser extension.
There are only two ways to make sure you’re sufficiently encrypted to keep your internet use off the market: a VPN and the Tor brower.
I’ve mentioned Tor before – one of its developers, Isis Agora Lovecruft, left the country to avoid the FBI. Tor is a modified version of Firefox that sends your traffic through a series of routers around the world to anonymize it. Your ISP will see that you’re accessing the Tor network, but not what sites you’re accessing through it. It’s not as fast or as customizable as a standard browser, but it’s indispensable when you need that privacy.
Most importantly for those who share their computer with others, it can be installed on and run from a USB drive. Closeted LGBTQ people who share their computer and are afraid of being outed don’t have to explain what it is and why they installed it.
Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, create a tunnel for all your internet traffic, not just your browser. There’s no single go-to VPN service, since unlike Tor they’re usually offered as a paid subscription and they’re rarely open enough to allow independent testing, but while you may not be able to trust a VPN provider to keep your information safe from the CIA, they will at least mask your traffic from your ISP. It’s best to look for one that’s well-established and engages in privacy activism.
Fortunately for Android users, Tor does offer a VPN-style app called Orbot that routes your phone’s connection through the same network as their browser.
None of this is in effect yet. The vote eliminated the rules; it’s now up to the ISPs to decide what to do with that freedom. But when there’s money to be made, things change fast, and it’s best to start protecting yourself ASAP.
And if you want to know who to thank for this here in Columbus, that would be Representatives Pat Tiberi and Steve Stivers and Senator Rob Portman. No surprise, really, but it’s another offense to everyday people to add to their records.
Joyce Beatty and Sherrod Brown both voted in opposition to it.