You can learn a lot about a person from their browser history. You easily discern a person’s hobbies and special interests. You can figure out if they’re married or single, kid-parents or pet-parents, where they live and often what they do for a living. These data points are gold for a marketer, so anyone sitting on piles of this kind of data could be as rich as Midas himself – if only that person was allowed to sell the information.
Oh wait, they sort of can!
Earlier this week, Congress voted to repeal the FCC’s broadband privacy rules now President Trump has made it official. Sounds scary – privacy and government in the same sentence – but don’t panic. . . yet.
The people behind the repeal said they did it to even the playing field between your internet provider and the big boys of the web like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. In case you didn’t know it, Google and Facebook are already using your internet wanderings to better “enhance” your user experience. Technically, they got your permission when you checked the box on the Terms of Service that you didn’t read, so you only have yourself to blame if they start showing you ads for products you’d rather keep private. (Honey? Have you been searching for divorce lawyers?)
Once the FCC’s privacy rules are repealed, your internet provider will also have the right to collect, use and sell your private information without asking your permission every time.
What that means is, you could end up on a divorce lawyer’s mailing list even if you’ve been careful to stay off Google and Facebook. (Really honey, I can explain!)
To be clear, there are still plenty of legal safeguards in place such as wiretapping laws and fraud laws. Even with the repeal, your provider can’t just sell your social security number to some guy with an off-shore bank account. They have a reputation to protect, same as you, so they’re not likely to go crazy once the bill is signed. Still, you’d be wise to take precautions.
First of all, think long and hard about the kind of information you’re sharing and where you’re sharing it. You can use a phony name on your blog about your struggle with addiction, but your ISP knows it’s you. Is it likely that they’ll out you? Not intentionally, but the more you have to lose, the more people there are trying to dig up the dirt. We’ve seen this happen over and over with celebrities and high-profile CEOs; private emails go public, racy photos turn up on Twitter, dual identities are brought to light. People have gone to jail based on their browser history, so yes, this is a serious subject.
If you are worried, you can take even more precautions by visiting secure websites (https vs http) and using an encrypted browser like Tor. If you deal with a lot of sensitive material from your home computer, consider using a Virtual Private Network or VPN.
Also, reconsider the number of smart and connected devices in your home, car and in your pocket. The more data you generate, the more your ISP will have to collect and sell. And let’s not forget about those not-so-friendly neighborhood hackers. Every connected device you use is a potential gateway for identity thieves.
Think it won’t happen to you. It happened to Andy last month and it happened to me yesterday. Luckily, neither of us suffered much beyond the initial embarrassment and annoyance. You might not be so lucky.
The point of this article is not to panic you or make you freak out about upcoming changes. Repeal or no repeal, we all need to be more careful about the amount and kind of information we’re not only posting on the internet but generating with browser histories, shopping histories and AI units like Alexa and Siri.
Even if you have nothing to hide (really?), a security slip can easily become a sharp blow to your reputation.