Guest Article: For Sale: Your Private Browsing History

20 Apr 2017

If you haven’t heard, congress just passed a bill to allow companies like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and so on to now collect your internet data, and sell it off for a profit. The obvious question here is, why does it matter? We are constantly being targeted with ads while surfing the internet every day, so do we really care about a few more targeted ads? And who cares if the government uses ISP information to bust some criminals or to crack down on terrorism.

Most people would think, that’s a good thing, right?

If only it were that simple. For most people, knowing the government could view our online activity probably doesn’t seem too scary. However, I think we can honestly say that innocent online activity can be very dangerous. Given our current times of almost-daily data breaches, assuming your information is safe with anyone is naïve at best. Even Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can be affected, and repercussions could be greater than we think when the data is correlated and analyzed by the wrong people.

Your browsing history says a lot about who you are, and most of us would prefer that it stayed private. Go ahead, take a few moments to think about everything your ISP could potentially know about you. Maybe you use a BitTorrent client to download the occasional copyrighted song or movie. What if you did some research on health warning signs, would you want your health insurance provider to know? Maybe you’ve been viewing sites you would prefer your family not know about. And do you really want your boss to find out how actively you’re looking for a new job? Exactly!

Let’s not forget that your cell phone is run by an ISP, so tracking a user’s location through mobile devices just reached the next level. ISPs such as Verizon or AT&T can access a user location thanks to GPS-enabled smart devices and monitor them. Companies such as Apple and other retailers do this already, using beacons (i.e. when you walk past an Apple Store and you get an alert telling you you’re near), but the difference is ISPs are looking to generate revenue from location tracking.

It becomes so easy to put something like this in place since your Internet Service Provider stands between you and everything online. You really can’t completely hide from them, however, what you can do is confuse them and cover your tracks.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are most commonly used by businesses to allow employees to work remotely. When you log in remotely from your home or the road, a VPN provides an encrypted connection to your work’s network, allowing you to work just as securely as if you were in the office. Your browsing history over the VPN is not viewable by your ISP, but it may viewable by your employer.

A lot of internet surfers have already turned to private VPN services that allow you to encrypt your online activity, so your ISP cannot track it. These types of private VPNs can be used to provide secure browsing while you’re connected to a public Internet connection, or to mask your online activities from your ISP.

Recent experts and studies show, that interest in VPNs has spiked as a result of the bill, something that isn’t unusual when privacy laws are touched or there is the potential for increased surveillance, either by big corporations or the government itself.

Another tool that is becoming more popular to hide while surfing is the the Onion Router or more commonly, “Tor.” Tor is an open-source software program that allows users to protect their privacy and security against a common form of Internet surveillance known as traffic analysis. Tor was originally developed for the U.S. Navy in an effort to protect government communications.

A final word of caution, while the above tools are perfectly legal to utilize, the activities you choose to use them for are still governed by the same laws as everything else you do online. They may make it harder for your ISP, or anyone else, to track your activities, but they won’t make it impossible.

If you’re doing something that deserves to be on the FBI’s radar, don’t expect to get away with it just because you’re using Tor or a VPN. And remember, privacy can be a very powerful tool, but everyone’s privacy is put in jeopardy by those who abuse it.