It’s official: President Trump signed the repeal of online privacy rules prohibiting ISPs from selling your browsing history. There are no longer any legal prohibitions for anyone selling the record of places you’ve visited online – or information extracted from it – to anyone else for a quick buck.
However, there are many other service providers who may take advantage of the new freedom. It won’t noticeably change things for most people. If you use Google, are on Facebook, or buy stuff from Amazon, you already have generated massive quantities of information about yourself which those corporations could sell to whomever they wished all along. So can any website that gathers visitor data, in fact, some of which might be acquired to secure financial transactions online by confirming just who they are dealing with.
What is different now is that Internet Service Providers, those businesses which, like SWCP, provide access to the net, can now use their own customer data in ways they were not allowed to do before. Whereas Google may know what you’re interested in, Facebook your social interactions, and Amazon what you buy, those are still incomplete pictures. Even when compiled together, they might miss large facets of your life, especially if you use anonymous search engines like Duck Duck Go instead of Google, refuse to have anything to do with social media, and never buy anything online.
However, everything you do online has to go through an ISP, whether you’re using a desktop, a tablet, or a smartphone. Everything: your entire online life. Private or incognito browsing might prevent websites from tracking you, but the ISP can theoretically see everything that passes through it. And the really big ISPs, like Verizon and Comcast, have plenty of incentives to employ that information themselves in-house to target ads to their users on their own networks.
But though SWCP will not sell your data, other corporations might, including our upstream partner, CenturyLink.. And there’s very little you can do about it.
Because the worst aspect to all this is that traditional methods of maintaining privacy online have now been surpassed. Keeping tracking information out of reach through ad blockers and other means is no longer sufficient, because there now are very clever ways of gathering enough data about the web-browser and the computer it’s on to distinguish it from all others. The technique is called browser fingerprinting, because like the physical kind, it relies on unique points and configurations to identify people.
What it does in this case is to ask your computer for basic operating data – screen size, orientation, fonts available, and so on – which is intended to make pages display properly. Here the query has been formulated instead to find out as much as it canabout the browser and the computer running it. The idea is acquire enough specific detail to distinguish you from all others, and it works. The technique very accurate; there’s no means yet to block it specifically and the exploit keeps getting better, too. Recently, researchers have added the ability to track users even when two or more browsers are being used. Ironically, private browsing may just give trackers another data point they could use to follow you.
The only logical way to avoid browser fingerprinting may be through a totally-encrypted connection. Therefore, a Virtual Private Network (VPN), or the anonymous Tor browser might be effective. But the former is an added cost and the latter must be properly configured, and there are no guarantees that your privacy cannot be breached in one of countless other ways. In fact, like private browsing, botched attempts to conceal yourself could draw just draw unwanted attention.
You can see for yourself how well your efforts to stay unidentified work at AmIUnique. It uses a single-browser technique and claims 90.8% accuracy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick will also tell you accurately how well your privacy solutions function and suggest improvements, too.
“Knowledge is power.” Without control of our own data, to hide, sell, or give away, users risk losing any semblance of online personal privacy. The arms race between anonymity and exposure will doubtless continue, but this round definitely belongs to those who would snoop.
The bottom line is that the choice of your Internet Service Provider is more important now than it ever has been before. SWCP believes your data should belong to you. As a small local provider, we do not face the same temptations as the big guys to monetize your personal information. Plus, you get friendly, neighborly service from friendly neighbors. No talking to foreigners with bad accents or being on hold with giant impersonal call centers just trying to sell you more of what you don’t want. And that is something money generally can’t buy.