Our privacy, or lack thereof, has been all over the headlines lately. It's not just cybercriminals watching us either. Earlier this month, we found out that the CIA has been using hacking techniques to spy on us for years.
Now, a law change passed by Congress could result in massive amounts of our personal data being sold.
How this legislation impacts you
What we're talking about is a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule that was approved in 2016. The rule is titled "Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunication Services."
The rule, which would have gone into effect at the end of this year, would have required Internet Service Providers (ISP) to get consent from their customers before sharing certain information with third-party companies. Some of that information includes:
- Social Security numbers
- Medical records
- Financial information
- Content of emails and other digital messages
- Internet browsing history
- App usage
- Location data
However, Congress just passed legislation that is headed to President Trump's desk, awaiting his signature. If it is signed into law, the FCC privacy rule, which would have finally given us all the online privacy we've been waiting for, will be officially eliminated.
The rule also requires internet providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to bolster security measures to better protect customer data against hackers and cybercriminals. That requirement would be erased by the new law as well.
If the president signs this law, which he is expected to do, providers will be free to monitor customers' online behavior. They can then use personal and financial information to sell targeted ads, all without the consent of the consumer.
Internet Service Providers could sell customer data directly to financial and marketing companies that mine personal information. The law also contains a clause stating that the FCC will not be allowed to issue similar rules in the future.
Your privacy was never safe
Although this news is frustrating, nothing has actually changed. While the legislation that was passed back in December may have brought us hope, it was never actually implemented.
And, even if the rule had gone into effect, it still had some major flaws. Sites like Facebook and Google already collect user information to provide targeted ads. However, since your ISP knows everything that you do online they will have much more personal data at their disposal.
So, yes, it seems that internet privacy is dead - but it was never very private to begin with.
How to keep your personal information private
This all just goes to show that we can't rely on the government to protect our privacy for us. It's up to each of us to take the time to adjust browser and app settings, encrypt our data, etc.
We know it can feel overwhelming, but here are some easy places to start:
Browse privately using VPNs
If you truly want to keep your personal information private, your best option is to encrypt your connection with a virtual private network (VPN). In the business world, VPNs let employees working remotely create an encrypted connection with the company network so they can work safely.
Windows and Macs both have VPN features built in just for this purpose. However, for the average home user or traveler, these aren't very helpful because you need something to connect to. That's where a third-party VPN service comes in handy.
A VPN service lets you create an encrypted connection with one of its servers and you use that server to browse the internet. The connection is encrypted through the server, so the VPN can't see your traffic either. OK, it's a bit more complicated than that behind the scenes, but that's the result. Click here to learn more about using a VPN.
Use web browsers that don't track you like Google
Believe it, or not, Google isn't the only search engine out there. You can skip Bing and Yahoo, too. If you really want to browse privately, use search engines like Yippy, Duckduckgo, or Ixquick. Click here to learn more about these tools that don't track you like Google.
Stop sites from tracking you
If Google is still your preferred search engine, then you'll need to limit what data can be tracked in each of your web browsers. For a step-by-step guide of this process, click here to learn how to disable tracking on Chrome, Firefox and Microsoft Edge.
Note: While you're at it, turn off the feature that lets Google track your location, and block other companies from tracking you on Facebook.
Clear your cookies
Web cookies are what sites use to track your behavior online. That's why you need to make it a habit to clear them out regularly. You can do this within the Settings menu of your browser, or use a software like CCleaner to do this for you.
Are you worried about providers selling your personal data? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.