Is Online Privacy History?
Online privacy took a step backwards this week, as the U.S. Congress passed legislation that would block privacy rules recently adopted by the Fderal Communications Commission. Read on to find out who may be watching what you do online, how that information can be bought and sold, and what you can do to protect your privacy...
Is a VPN the Perfect Privacy Protection?
On March 28, 2017, U.S. lawmakers sent to President Trump’s desk a resolution that would nullify privacy rules adopted by the FCC in the late days of the Obama administration. The rules would have required ISPs to ask your permission before selling your browsing history to marketers. Even if President Trump does not sign the resolution, newly appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has already said he will not enact the rules.
To be clear: those new FCC privacy rules never went into effect. Your ISP is free to sell your browsing history, and always has been. This brings up a related point. Some lawmakers opposed the FCC privacy rules because they applied ONLY to Internet Service Providers. Other online media giants such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft were for some reason not included.
The bottom line is this: You won’t get any privacy protection from the government for the foreseeable future. My hope is that this will be revisited by Congress and/or the FCC, but for now it’s up to you to do the best you can to protect your privacy.
Some security experts say that a personal Virtual Private Network (VPN) provides the best protection against eavesdroppers and snoops. Let’s take a look and see. (First, if you wish, you review my primer, Personal VPNs for Anonymous Web Surfing.)
When you use a personal VPN, it appears to your ISP that you are connecting only to one server for all your web requests -- the VPN gateway server. Your ISP cannot see the URL or IP address of the site to which the VPN server connects you. You browsing history remains a secret. So far, so good.
But how do you know your VPN service provider is not selling your browsing history? How do you know they haven't been hacked, or that they won't be? Ultimately, the answer is, “you don’t,” but we can infer that VPN services that have been around a while and have good security practices, and have not been caught selling their users’ privacy. So ask in forums and on social media for referrals. Don’t believe ads, “ranking” sites, or Google search results.
More VPN Gotchas
Another problem is that you may not be able to connect to certains sites through a VPN. Netflix, for example, works hard to block VPN connections in order to prevent viewing of video content outside of its authorized regions. If you cannot reach a site, it’s hard to tell if the problem lies in misconfigured VPN software, a site that is down, or if the site has blocked your VPN connection.
Another potential problem with using a VPN is the WebRTC flaw, which can "leak" your actual IP address, even when using a VPN or proxy service. To mitigate this problem, browser addons for Chrome, Firefox and Opera can be installed. There is no fix for Internet Explorer, so I advise you to not use IE when connecting to a VPN.
Last, but not least, all VPNs cause your connection to slow down. You may have to try several VPN services before finding one that’s tolerably fast, never mind “high speed.” Free VPNs tend to be unreliable, and slower than the paid ones.
Other Privacy Options
One solution to the Internet privacy problem that I don't recommend is the "make noise" option. This involves using a browser extension that continuously opens random Google searches in new tabs. The idea is to "pollute" your browser history with so many keywords that your ISP won't be able to create an accurate dossier on you. Aside from the obvious inconvenience of all those tabs opening and closing on your screen, I see two problems with this. First, you'll quickly tire of doing this. Second, there's no guarantee it will help. Suppose one or more of those random searches turns out to be "aids cure" or something else that could be used against you?
Of course, there’s Tor, the open-source browser that masks your Internet use by routing your HTTP requests through multiple servers in the Tor network. However, Tor is notoriously complicated to set up, typically slows down your connection speed, and malicious Tor servers exist that may inject malware into the data stream coming your way.
Are You Worried?
"Well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped from whispering through the fence, You know every move I make, or is that just coincidence?" -- Larry Norman, The Great American Novel. (1972)
You may not be concerned about your ISP or other online companies creating a profile of your online activities and selling it for advertising purposes. Personally, I don't see the need to run all my Internet usage through a VPN or Tor browser. If that helps to subsidize the cost of my Internet connection, or helps businesses like Google or Facebook provide free services that I find useful, then fine. If it helps advertisers to send me ads that are at least sometimes relevant to my wants, needs, or interests, that's better than seeing random ads. (I do oppose the use of ad blockers, because they destroy the "online ecosystem" that makes free sites like this one possible.)
Of course, you may have legitimate concerns about your online privacy, or just reject the notion of tracking and profiling on principle. If so, the tools listed here will help, but will not guarantee that all your online activities will remain private. Oh, and we haven't even touched the topic of how the government may be spying on everything we do online, and storing every last bit of our browsing, shopping, driving, gaming, emailing, texting and talking in a giant database somewhere.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 31 Mar 2017
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Is Online Privacy History? (Posted: 31 Mar 2017)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved