04 Apr Protecting Your Online Privacy
There’s been a brouhaha of late about Congress’s vote to repeal regulations that seek to protect the privacy of broadband customers. In October, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published rules that would require internet service providers (ISPs) to let their customers opt in or opt out of providing certain information about them and their online activity. The rules were set to take effect later this year. Congress used the Congressional Review Act to invalidate the rules claiming that they unfairly target only one type of internet company, but don’t hold websites (e.g., Facebook or Twitter) or search engines like Google to the same standard. The rule’s opponents also argue that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the appropriate agency to regulate internet privacy, not the FCC. Rationale aside, the bottom line is that since FCC’s rules will not take effect, the status quo will remain for the time being. But, that does not leave consumers powerless. There are steps individuals can take to protect their privacy online.
Everyone has a different tolerance level when it comes to invasions of privacy. In an internet-dependent world where social media is thriving, it seems like little is sacred. The good news is that if you are diligent, you can take control of how much of your information is shared when you are online. There are a number of ways to do this. Some can be time consuming (e.g., actually reading privacy policies), but others are fairly simple and can give you more protection and greater peace of mind if you are feeling violated.
Cookies are bits of information that websites store on computers to remember visitors. This can be quite convenient. Websites can keep your shopping cart items up to date, remember your username for you, or save high scores for your favorite games. At the same time, cookies can be used to track behavior and preferences to target marketing, among other uses, which may feel more intrusive than helpful. There are ways to control cookies. You can do so through your browser by deleting your browsing history, including cookies. Deleting cookies does not prevent a new cookie from being placed on your computer in the future, however, unless you’ve taken steps to block them. Blocking cookies is also possible by changing your browser’s settings, options and preferences. Different browsers offer different options for blocking cookies and a little research might help you select the browser that best fits your needs.
You may browse the web anonymously by selecting the private or incognito mode from your browser’s tool bar. This will prevent your browsing history from being stored on the computer, including some cookies, although you should check your anonymous browsing settings to confirm. A more effective way to browse the web anonymously is to employ a virtual private network (VPN). Only with a VPN is your traffic encrypted while getting from A to B. Since your ISP resides between A and B, they will only know that the traffic is encrypted and won’t be privy to the list of sites you visited. However, once you get to point B, encryption ends. At that point, what you are doing is easily read by those sitting at point B.
Tracker Blocking Plug-Ins
Browser add-ons are available to help you block website tracking. Some tracker blocking tools will inform you of the parties it detects tracking data on the sites you visit. It’s up you to take action to block them. Other tools may block trackers by default, but offer the option of unblocking at your discretion. Another approach analyzes tracker activity over time and only blocks tracking when the activity reaches a level that is deemed intrusive and non-consensual.
Contact your ISP
You should ensure that your ISP is honoring your preferences. The companies that provide internet service (e.g., AT&T, Verizon, Comcast) have pledged to uphold set of principles that follow FTC’s privacy framework. The principles state that “ISPs will continue to: (i) follow the FTC’s guidance regarding opt-in consent for the use and sharing of sensitive information as defined by the FTC; (ii) offer an opt-out choice to use non-sensitive customer information for personalized third-party marketing; and (iii) rely on implied consent to use customer information in activities like service fulfillment and support, fraud prevention, market research, product development, network management and security, compliance with law, and first-party marketing.”
While it’s possible that the Federal government will issue new rules to dictate what the internet ecosystem must provide in the way of privacy protection to internet users, there is no need to wait to take action to limit your exposure online.