Why it’s bad Congress voted to remove internet privacy protections

Both the Senate and House passed a resolution to roll back FCC internet privacy protections. I’ve seen a variety of reactions to this. Because I saw a lot of unequivocal dissent, but I saw other comments as well. A few of my friends basically said, “This sounds bad, but I don’t fully understand why.” And I did see some “Comcast (or whoever) already has all your data, so get over it!” reactions too. If your reaction fell into one of those latter two groups or if you don’t know what I’m referring to this is meant for you.

What Congress voted for

Last October the FCC approved rules requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to notify users before collecting and sharing (and selling) their personal data. The data to which they have access includes your browsing history. Republicans in both houses of Congress voted to take those rules away.

Technically this isn’t over yet. It still requires the President’s signature, but statements have said he supports the measure.

So why should you care?

Even if you have “nothing to hide” you still have a lot to lose

The internet has become an extension of our thoughts. It is a reflection of our ids, our egos, and our superegos. Access to our browsing histories is the closest people can currently get to reading our minds.

This is where the standard response of “Well, I have nothing to hide” tends to come up. I’ve written about that response to privacy issues before, but this law has a very specific spin on this argument.

People saying they have nothing to hide in their browsing histories tend to mean they don’t visit any embarrassing websites, but even if you don’t visit any individual sites you’d want to hide, there is a lot of information in your browsing history that could be used to discriminate against you, harass you, or scam you. For example:

  • Thinking about going on vacation? Your browsing and search history probably know where and possibly when.
  • Have you or your loved one been diagnosed with an illness? Your internet history likely knows that too.
  • Are you pregnant or trying to get pregnant? Looking for a new job? Getting married? Getting divorced? Taking up a dangerous new hobby? It all tends to be there in the web sites you visit and the searches you make.

Yes, companies already use this information to push ads at you, but without internet privacy protections that information can be sold to your current employer, a potential employer, your bank, or your insurance company without you even knowing they have it. Might they judge you differently based on any of that information?

But the concern goes beyond the individual websites you visit and the searches you make. Information can be found in the patterns of your internet usage as well.

Do your online habits change when you are suffering from anxiety or depression? For example, what might someone assume if you are suddenly online in the middle of the night when you used to go to bed by 10? Perhaps that information would be used for good, to provide you with early intervention or something. Or perhaps it would be used to discriminate against you.

Protect your information (and yourself)

The best way to keep your data out of the hands of your ISP is to use a virtual private network (VPN). When you connect to a VPN it’s as though everything you do after that is hidden in a big tube. Your ISP can see that you are using a VPN, but it can’t see what you are doing online.

Of course, the trick is finding a VPN you trust not to do the exact thing you are trying to keep your ISP from doing. This article includes tips on choosing a VPN and also describes some other useful privacy tools and techniques.

Make privacy your default

Don’t make the mistake of getting a VPN and only using it when you are doing something you don’t want someone to see. People can often glean information from looking for patterns of when you use your VPN instead of standard browsing or make assumptions based on the site your visited right before switching to a private mode. Also, if you aren’t in the habit of using your VPN (or other privacy tools) you may forget to connect until after you’ve done something you would rather have kept private. Privacy tools work best when they are used by default.

Maybe you truly do have nothing to hide, but I recommend taking a few steps to protect yourself just in case you’re wrong.

RELATED POST: Five reasons you should care about privacy issues

Kim Z. Dale on TwitterFacebook, and Google+ .

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