Barring any last minute interventions, Tuesday, March 28, 2017, is the day that internet privacy was finally killed off in the United States. Thanks to massive lobbying efforts by Internet Service Provider (ISP) companies, the government has decided to repeal several FCC rules which have thus far protected the online privacy of every US resident.
With this repeal, ISPs are now able to freely sell any data they collect on their customers’ internet activities to the highest bidder. On the surface, that may not sound like a huge deal. After all, various companies have been able to track many aspects of an individual’s internet habits for some time. But unleashing the incredibly detailed data Internet Service Providers collect is unprecedented and a whole new ball game.
What the ISP Sees
An ISP is a company which connects any individual’s home to the internet. Because all data a user sends and receives passes through the ISP’s hardware, they can intercept and analyze it all. They can read every single line of text, and view every single image. The ISPs also know exactly which websites a person visited, when they connected and how long they stuck around.
Based on that information, ISPs can quickly determine just about anything about a person and their life. Here is just a small sampling of what some of those things are: vacation plans, political views and affiliations, interest in specific products, faithfulness to a significant other, health problems, financial issues. The list goes on and on.
Of course, Internet Service Providers have always had access to this data. They just weren’t able to do much with it unless their customers gave them explicit permission to do so. With the repeal of the FCC rules, however, they have been given license to exploit all information they collect for profit. And that they will do to the best of their abilities.
Who Needs to Worry
Everyone accessing the Internet in the US will be affected by this change. At the top of the list are, of course, copyright pirates. Up until this point, ISPs had no real reason to help the entertainment industry with their piracy problems, nor was it legal for them to do so. Now, not only is the legality no longer an issue, but Internet Service Providers can also make a lot of money selling internet activity information to various entertainment companies.
Anyone who is applying for a credit card, mortgage or any other banking product will now be much more carefully scrutinized. Why wouldn’t a bank want to see what a potential client has been up to online before lending them three hundred thousand dollars to buy a house? Maybe that client was looking for information on declaring bankruptcy? Or he was interested in learning more about money laundering?
Medical insurance companies are also salivating at the thought of gaining access to the sort of data ISPs can collect. It will give them unprecedented access to any person’s life and can easily become grounds to increase insurance premiums or deny policies altogether.
What Can Be Done
No matter how anyone looks at things, all US residents have been forced into an internet privacy corner. The only feasible way out is a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
A VPN lets a person connect to the internet through a server run by a VPN provider. Such a connection has two benefits. First, all data that travels between any end user device and the VPN server is encrypted, making it impossible for the ISP to read it.
The second benefit is that the Internet Service Provider is unable to find out which websites a person visits. All the ISP knows is that a connection has been established with the VPN server. This completely cuts them out of the loop, strips them of any valuable data to sell, and most importantly maintains internet privacy.
On thing to note is that when using a VPN, the provider can see the same data an ISP can when a VPN is not used. The difference is that ensuring online privacy is at the core of any VPN business. Failure to do so would almost certainly result in customers abandoning ship and the provider going out of business. In fact, almost all VPN services have very strict and explicitly stated rules about not keeping logs or information that can identify any one of their users.
When it comes to picking a VPN provider, there are two things that matter. One is that they indeed state in the Terms of Service that no user activity information is ever logged or retained. The second is to select the fastest VPN service possible. Getting one that does not perform well will severely impede internet usability. This, in turn, may result in a user abandoning the VPN altogether, which will throw them right back into the clutches of their ISP.
The effect of the FCC rules repeal is far more invasive than most US residents realize. The best way to stop ISPs from selling personal internet activity data is to prevent it from being logged in the first place. A VPN will do exactly that. Anyone using a VPN can be sure that their Internet Service Provider will be kept in the dark. They can feel comforted knowing their online privacy remains intact.