Congress has moved to dismantle some Obama-era rules that would have protected the online privacy of everyday Americans. This sucks. The deregulation means it will be easier for huge telecom companies to track and sell their customers’ browsing history. This sucks! But not all is lost.
Regardless of what the Capitol Hill-based wrecking ball does to the FCC’s online privacy rules, there are still steps you can take to protect yourself on the internet. The new era of anti-privacy policies in Washington does mean that companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast can collect data about your everyday internet usage.
“Your ISP can sell your traffic without any permission, and it’s unclear if they would even have to tell you they were doing it,” Jeremy Gillula, a senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told Gizmodo.
The White House has already said it “strongly supports” the repeal of the Obama-era rules. Trump is expected to sign the bill into law in the coming days.
Without the FCC’s privacy rules, it’s not just information about web pages you visit that service providers can collect. Your ISP can now track your activity any time your computer accesses the internet. If you check the weather on your phone, your ISP could know that you’re worried about the rain and serve up ads about umbrellas. More realistically, they could sell the data about your daily habits to a marketing firm so that they could serve you more relevant ads.
However, you can still go dark, if you don’t want big telecom peering into your private life. There’s a chance that your ISP will let you opt-out of certain types of data collection, although it’s unclear if they’re specifically required to do this in the absence of the privacy rules. The FTC does recommend that service providers off an opt-in option, although ISPs could just decide to ignore that recommendation. Your situation will inevitably depend on how your particular ISP decides to exploit the lack of rules. Otherwise, protecting your online privacy in these grim times essentially amounts to putting up a barrier between you and the prying eyes of large telecom companies. Let us show you how.
Our first recommendation is the best one: pay for a VPN service. Using a virtual private network (VPN) is the only way to ensure that you’re accessing the internet through an encrypted, private channel. Your browsing habits can still be seen by the VPN service—and law enforcement, if it comes to that—but you’ll be safe from a spying ISP since it will see your traffic as coming from a random server instead of your house.
You can subscribe to VPN services for both desktop and mobile. But as the word “pay” implies, any decent option will cost you a few bucks a month. (Read that as: do not use a free VPN service and expect privacy at the same time.) Finding the right VPN for you can be an odyssey, although our friends at Lifehacker have this handy guide and this detailed spreadsheet that show the upsides of various services. If you’re tech savvy, you can also set up your own VPN, although the server space does cost some money.
There is some bad news, too.
“A VPN won’t protect you from all of the creepy stuff that ISPs will be able to do,” Evan Greer at Fight for the Future said in an interview with Gizmodo, noting that ISPs can still install secret traffic software and inject ads into web traffic when a VPN is in place. That’s part of the reason why the FCC passed internet privacy rules in the first place. Although they are the most comprehensive defense against snoopers, the fact that VPNs still won’t completely protect internet users highlights just how badly America needed those privacy rules.
“Without these rules, ISPs will be able to monitor, collect, and store almost everything you do online and sell that information to advertisers and data mining companies—and use it to build an almost complete profile of your online activity,” Greer explained. “In the end there are steps you can take, but also it’s the responsibility of our legislators to protect us.”
Now let’s get serious. If you really want to keep your browsing habits away from the prying eyes of corporations and the government, Tor is the best bet. It is not, however, the most convenient option nor is it the most comprehensive. (Using a VPN is the most comprehensive, even though it won’t protect you entirely.)
You’ve probably heard of Tor. Tor is everybody’s favorite free anonymity software and is relatively easy to install on a desktop. Tor is also available for Android through a package called Orbot, which is slightly more difficult to install. Once you’re up and running, you can browse the web anonymously, and even weasel your way into the edgy corners of the dark web, if that’s your thing.
There are a couple of major downsides to using Tor all the time. One, it only protects you from snoopers when you’re surfing the web in the Tor browser. Any other internet-connect apps, like email clients or chat apps, will not be anonymized. Two, Tor doesn’t work well with sites that run Cloud Flare’s security software, which is the majority of sites on the web. When you visit these sites, you might have to type in a captcha to prove you’re human which is fine from time-to-time, but Tor users often find themselves typing in captchas every time they visit a new domain.
Tor is not a perfect solution for browsing the web privately. It’s certainly much better than using incognito windows in Chrome or private browsing tabs in Safari. As Gillula explained to Gizmodo, these features don’t protect you at all if you’re worried about obscuring your browsing habits from an ISP or the government—not one little bit.