Yes, Congress did “sell you out” earlier this week, by passing a bill that will let internet service providers (ISPs) collect your browsing data and use it for their financial gain. But that doesn’t mean that all hell will break loose, or that there aren’t ways to still try to protect that precious personal data now that the FCC protections have been repealed.
First of all, what ISPs will be able to do isn’t something unseen. Google, Facebook, and many others already collect and “sell” your data — that is, they target you with ads based on their knowledge of your preferences. But ISPs will be in a position where they’ll be able to identify users even better. Unlike online companies whose ad-based revenue is based on what they can learn about you, the ISPs will have all your data and your browsing history across devices, which could be a valuable piece of information for online companies whose primary business represents selling ads to third-parties.
So what you need to do is find out if your ISP is currently collecting, or planning to collect, any personal data, and determine whether there’s a way to opt out. While you’re at it, check whether any competing ISPs do have opt-out options, and consider switching — again, this might not be an option available to all US internet users. You might have to pay extra to protect your privacy.
If you’re really worried about targeted ads, you should consider using a virtual private network (VPN) to hide your traffic, and you should reset ad identifiers whenever possible. Google offers the feature, just head on to the settings page of your Google Account. The same is possible on the iPhone, where Apple lets you reset the ad id, so companies have a harder time tracking you online.
Aside from targeting you with ads, or selling your data to others, the ISPs almost-obtained freedom to deal with your data brings up a second reason to worry. Hackers and state-sponsored attackers may go after personal data that ISPs would collect and store. That would open the door to even worse problems than seeing targeted ads.
Hackers could steal your identity from data dumps, or use information about you to try to break into online properties. And let’s not forget about intelligence agencies of all kinds which could certainly appreciate the extra data that ISPs might collect, data that could turn out to be useful in the future, whether obtained legally or illegally by said organizations.
What data will ISPs collect aside from your browsing history? They could have access to your location data, financial and health information, social security numbers, children information, and even the content of your internet dealings, assuming you’re using non-encrypted services.
That’s why you should use encryption whenever possible while hanging out online — that means using HTTPS sites over HTTP for all your browsing. To protect even better your browsing history, you could use a VPN by default on all your devices. VPNs come free of charge, but better get yourself a paid subscription after you do some research on the matter. Again, you may have to pay extra each month just so you feel safer about your privacy.
If your browsing is really hardcore and you want it completely hidden, you might consider installing Tor, a browser that further anonymizes your internet habits. However, don’t expect it to offer the same goodies as Google Chrome or all the other modern brothers out there.
Going offline for good is the only option that will fix this “problem” for good, and that’s probably not an option. Until Donald Trump actually signs the bill, you have plenty of time to learn more about your ISPs policy on customer data collection and teach yourself to be a better internet user. That means learning what HTTPS/SSL encryption, VPN, Tor, Do Not Track, and ad identifiers are, and using them accordingly.
If on the other hand, you don’t care about who tracks you online, and what happens to your data, then you’re not going to be affected by this annoying bill, at least not when it comes to online advertising. But if hackers do get their hands on your personal browsing habits and use that data to crack into your online accounts, then you know what you’ll have to do in the future to protect your privacy.