At the tail end of March, Congress approved a bill that would allow Internet Service Providers to sell your Internet browsing history to advertisers. The President signed this bill in to law. So, it’s official. Literally every piece of information about everything you’ve ever done on the Internet can be sold to advertisers so they can create a detailed profile of your life. Why would they want to do this? So they can do a better job selling you things.
If you use the Internet, you’re familiar with targeted ads. You go to Amazon and buy some new jeans. You go to another website that hosts ads, which is how most of the sites on the Internet make money, and there’s an ad for clothing. You hop over to another site and there’s another ad for clothing. The ads follow you around, trying to get you to buy more clothes.
How do these websites know to show you ads about clothes? Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other websites that request data from you, gather all the information you’ve given them and create a profile on you. Think about all the information we give these sites: our age, our location, our likes and dislikes, things we frequently purchase, and so much more.
We willingly give up this information in order to use these services and the price we pay is that these sites know a lot about us, and they sell that information to advertisers, so they can sell us more things. Advertisers pay these sites big money for our data. Creepy? Yes. But it’s the agreement we make when we check yes to agree to these sites’ terms and conditions.
So, what’s the big difference between Google, Facebook, and Amazon selling this data and our Internet Service Providers selling this data? Our Internet Service Providers know way more about us than any of those websites. Google, Facebook, and Amazon know general information about us, and when they sell that information they don’t sell it attached to our names.
But our Internet Service Providers know everything that happens when we use the Internet. They see our Social Security Numbers, our credit card information, our detailed search queries, banking data, medical records, and every URL we visit. Internet Service Providers have sworn that they will not sell SSN’s, banking information, or medical records without consent, but it’s unclear whether the law actually prohibits them from doing so.
Additionally, the amount of data that they are allowed to sell without consent could create a profile so detailed that it would provide advertisers essentially all the same information as our sensitive data. For example, ISP’s would not have to sell medical records because symptoms we’ve searched on WebMD would be for sale. When you search WebMD ads for a cream, ointment, or pill that would solve your problem may follow you around the web. If you’re researching buying a house and input your income into a mortgage calculator, that information is gathered and could be sold to advertisers so they can deliver ads based on your income. It’s possible that the profiles created could be so specific that they could actually be traced back to an individual name, allowing advertisers to access you directly.
In the digital age, this kind of invasion of privacy may not seem like a big deal, but it is. The ability for Internet Service providers to sell your data to advertisers is one step away from them being able to sell this data to the police, to local organizations, and to just about anyone. I hate to use the slippery slope analogy, but it’s appropriate here.
So, what can you do to protect your data now that your browsing history is up for sale?
1) Investigate different Internet Service Providers
All the major ISP’s are rejoicing at this decision and the opportunity to sell your data. If you’re with a major, corporate Internet Service Provider, check around to see if there’s a local provider that you can switch to. Ask local providers about how they will share your data and how their company views this bill. Local providers may be less invested in selling your data to advertisers and they may be incentivized to protect your data if it means they’ll gain business from a large competitor.
If there are no other local providers, investigate different corporate Internet Service Providers. Make sure to ask them if they are offering the option to opt out of having your data sold. Some ISP’s may choose to do this in the future if they lose business for selling data.
2) Download a TOR browser
TOR browsers are software that allows encrypted access to the Internet. Basically, you download a separate Internet browser, the TOR browser, and the software built in to the browser masks your IP address and your personal information. Using a TOR browser means that your ISP will not be able to associate your web browsing with your computer and therefore your identity.
People have been using TOR browsers for years to ensure that their Internet activity remains anonymous. TOR browsers are infamous for being the access point to the Deep Web or the Dark Web, where all sorts of illegal activity happens, but TOR browsers can be used for run of the mill browsing as well.
That being said, not all sites may be accessible via a TOR browser. Companies quickly picked up on the fact that if they couldn’t track your data they couldn’t advertise to you, so a lot of websites block access from a TOR browser.
3) Set up a VPN
A VPN, or virtual private network, is another way to disassociate your browsing history from your identity. A virtual private network takes your request to view a website (what happens when you hit enter in the URL bar) and routes it through multiple different servers to mask where the request is coming from. This essentially means that the fact that you’re viewing the website can’t be linked back to your computer.
There are free VPN’s available, but they’re not that reliable. If you’re really invested in going the VPN route, you’re going to have to pay, and some of them aren’t cheap.
Unfortunately, there are downsides to all the actions you can take to try and protect your data. The best thing you can do is be proactive and contact your ISP. Let them know that you are not okay with them selling your data. Though they can still sell it without your consent, putting pressure on ISP’s to not sell data may encourage them to handle our data more responsibly.