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The scrapping of FCC’s broadband privacy rules is the latest and most controversial political turmoil to hit the US. With these rules nullified, ISPs won’t need the explicit consent of users before collecting and sharing their online activities to companies offering the highest bid.
Do you understand the implications? You will now be legally bombarded with targeted ads that already drive you crazy, and with it ISPs will generate a nice stream of revenue! However, there’s a catch: the passing of this law basically changes nothing. While the previous broadband privacy rules were a step in the right direction, they had yet to be put into effect.
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Therefore, in reality, your personal data is no safer than it was a week ago. What’s more is the overturning of these rules also strips the FCC from having any legal authority to protect the privacy of broadband consumers. As internet companies hold quiet celebrations, this move is indeed a matter of concern for broadband privacy advocates. So, what now?
What does this means for your privacy?
There can be some potential pros to this. AT&T, for example, used to hand out special internet discounts to customers in return for the right to track their browsing history. The death of internet surveillance rules in USA may result in such programs making a comeback, and they could be marketed as a means to access the internet at cheaper rates.
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Furthermore, industry advocates have also argued that allowing ISPs to use data-driven marketing would benefit customers by providing more relevant advertising. Now, if you are thinking “what’s so bad about ISPs selling my information?” Think again. After all, they will be selling much more than just your age, phone number and address!
The legislation leaves a huge gap in consumer protection because without any discernible privacy requirements in place, cable and broadband companies can do just about anything they want with your browsing history. Firstly, they will sell your data to advertisers without your consent, there’s no doubt about that.
Secondly, they will hijack your search queries. While it will still look like you are searching for something on Google, your ISP will first intercept your search and check if it has any advertisers matching your search. If that is indeed the case, then you can anticipate the companies appearing on the first page of the search results.
As your ISP snoops through your traffic, it will not only record your browsing history but also cram its own ads into your web browser. So, yes, you are going to be served with more annoying ads on your screen. Sigh. It’s also likely that ISPs may silently start pre-installing bloatware on your devices.
Why wouldn’t they? Companies like T-Mobile and AT&T have already done so before. These programs pretty much log everything you do on your device. And lastly, ISPs could use undetectable and undeletable ‘super cookies’ to track your online behavior. Wait, you think that’s impossible? Verizon and AT&T already did this back in 2014, but pulled back due to public opinion and privacy regulations.
How can you protect yourself?
With the Congress – and now President Trump – taking a step back on your broadband privacy and rolling back internet surveillance rules in USA, it’s important that you take steps to protect yourself from the prying eyes of greedy ISPs. While there’s not a lot you can do, there are a number of ways to protect your privacy online, at least to some extent:
Virtual Private Networks
Using a VPN for private browsing is the first recommendation. You probably have come across a lot of comprehensive explanations online about what VPN’s are, and what they actually do, but to put it simply, they protect your online privacy by creating a secure, encrypted connection – often referred to as a tunnel – between your device or computer and the VPN’s server.
This encrypts all your information during transmission, preventing ISPs and anyone else from being able to see or modify that traffic. As you browse the internet, your data first goes to the VPN’s server, which is then passed back securely to you. As a result, when data is sent out, it will appear to come from the VPN’s server, instead of your computer.
Setting up a VPN for private browsing is a great way to anonymize yourself online, but expect to pay for them as they cost money. Sure, there are a number of free VPNs that you can get your hands on, but they aren’t exactly secure and therefore not recommended!
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Another good way to protect your privacy is HTTPS Everywhere. The browser extension secures and protects all connections to your web browser with SSL/TLS encryption, limiting what your ISP can see. Therefore, while they will be able to collect the general domain name of the website you visit, they would not be able to monitor what information you are sending or which specific pages you are on.
If you really want total privacy on the internet, and don’t want to go through the hassle of setting up ISP surveillance VPN, you should opt for Tor browser. It basically conceals your identity and online activity from traffic analysis and surveillance by separating routing and identification. However, it’s worth noting that it offers a much slower and less convenient browsing experience, which you may not be used to.
To conclude, it’s important than ever to highlight a common misconception: no, private browsing will not prevent your ISP from monitoring your internet activity. Google itself says that while the incognito mode in Chrome prevents the browser from saving the websites you visit; it doesn’t really stop websites and ISPs from seeing which websites you have visited. So, if online privacy is what you want, you are better using an ISP surveillance VPN.