|Privacy 101: Why You Need a VPN|
Back in March, the Republican-led Congress voted to repeal FCC rules that blocked ISPs from selling your data to third parties without permission. The vote largely fell along party lines and President Trump signed the bill into law in early April.
The new rules will allow ISPs (your Comcasts, Charters, and AT&Ts) to "harvest" their customers' online data and sell it to third-party marketers. Monetized online behavior isn't new. If you Google "cold remedies," for example, don't be surprised to later encounter web ads for decongestants and tissues. What magical marketing fairies enabled this seamless synergy, you ask? Big Data!
Just about all your online data is automatically scraped, organized, and sold to advertisers so they can micro-tailor their sales pitches. This very profitable business model is how Google and Facebook have amassed astounding fortunes despite the fact that they give their products away for free.
Your data isn't necessarily used maliciously (as long as you don't consider capitalism to be inherently malicious), but it's unsettling to know your private data is just out there and up for sale in some virtual marketplace. Now your ISP can get in the Big Data game as well.
New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the move reverses "privacy regulations designed to benefit one group of favored companies over another group of disfavored companies." The subtext of the chairman's comment being that he believes the previous administration crafted rules to support Democratic-friendly Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Google, while blocking less favored corporations like home cable/internet providers ( blech). However, that comparison doesn't exactly pan out.
While it is true that companies like Google and Facebook make money off your behavior, you are not forced to use these services. If you suddenly decided to stop using Facebook, you might miss out on cute pet pics and political rants from your friends and family, but you could still live a thoroughly modern existence. You could even choose to avoid the Google-o-sphere entirely by using Bing or DuckDuckGo for your web searches, Dropbox instead of Google Drive, or iOS instead of the Google-maintained Android.
You don't have this choice when it comes to your ISP—your home's gateway to the entirety of the internet. While there are alternatives to Google and Facebook, most Americans have limited home ISP alternatives. Some areas have only one provider. So this bill gives a green light to unescapable corporate data mining. You and your data are captives—unless you take proactive action to protect it.
"ISPs are in a position to see a lot of what you do online. They kind of have to be, since they have to carry all of your traffic," explains Electronic Frontier Foundation ( EFF) senior staff technologist Jeremy Gillula. "Unfortunately, this means that preventing ISP tracking online is a lot harder than preventing other third-party tracking—you can't just install [the EFF's privacy-minded browser add-on] Privacy Badger or browse in incognito or private mode."
VPN to the Rescue?One of the best ways to secure your data is to use a virtual private network (VPN), which provides greater control of how you're identified online. Simply put, a VPN creates a virtual encrypted "tunnel" between you and a remote server operated by a VPN service. All external internet traffic is routed through this tunnel, so your ISP can't see your data. If the site you're heading to uses HTTPS, your data stays encrypted, too. Best of all, your computer appears to have the IP address of the VPN server, masking your identity.