Republican-Led Congress Just Gave Away Your Data, Here’s What You Can Do

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Remember how the Senate voted to nix an FCC rule that would stop your internet service provider from tracking your browsing and selling it to advertisers? There’s about a million creepy ways for such a thing to be abused and weaponized. The House voted on Wednesday to nix those rules too, which means the only person standing between unfettered, acceptable data mining is Donnie Trump and he wants to close up that internet! So kiss the tiny Obama-era privacy win goodbye. Already people are proving me right—there’s a crowdfunding campaign to purchase the browsing history of those that voted for this travesty. Maybe it’s an unpopular opinion, but they should be protected, too. Everyone should. In light of their total hypocrisy, it’s tempting to say go forth and jam anyhow (so, so tempting), but Taylor over at Techcrunch is the voice of reason as usual.

So, what can YOU actually do, a person who was looking forward to more privacy and not less? If not vindictively pay for Mitch McConnell’s browsing history, what can we all actually do to keep ourselves a little safer? Here’s a quick step-by-step for the casual internet user.

Nothing Is Going to Protect Us Entirely

The very first step is knowing that we are at the mercy of corporations here. There are ways to make yourself safer, but as in the case of Verizon shipping phones with tracking software already on it, there are plenty of ways to get around our individual security measures. It’s no reason NOT to take them, but it is a reason to be careful no matter how many precautions you do take.

Nothing says your ISP has to tell you when they’re tracking you, but if you find out they are, you need to contact them and try to opt out even if they don’t have the infrastructure for anyone to opt out. Then, if there is a competitor in the area (how there often isn’t is beyond me, ISPs often have very monopoly-esque conditions), say that you’ll switch. And then do. The shit bit is probably that other ISP will also track you and sell your data. Keep it up. Make it inconvenient. Make it bad for business to track customers. Clog their phones like we clogged Congress’s phones.

Also don’t panic—nothing is going to change instantly. Remember, these rules haven’t gone into effect yet. Likely your ISP is already tracking and selling your data unless they expressly say they’re not (and even then, eeeehhhhhhhh). You just didn’t know it until last week. So—

Install a VPN, Like TunnelBear

VPN—virtual private network. This funnels your internet traffic through a series of servers, masking things like which websites you visit. Basically it uses a business’s private servers to connect you to a public network—the Internet at large—so it looks like you’re making one point-to-point connection even though you’re wandering all over the world wide web. A lot of corporations have their own VPNs for their remote workforce to conduct corporate business securely on a corporate server, but the sort of VPNs we’re talking here are the ones you can use without working for a corporation. VPNs for the everyday internet user. VPNs are already recommended when using public internet connections, like the wifi at the coffee shop. That way, even when you’re conducting business at Joe’s Coffee or the library, savvy hackers will have a harder time getting ahold of what you’re doing. VPNs can also help with your home network in light of the major sketch things ISPs are doing and the total lack of spine from the Republican party to stop them. If you’re like, but why, just remember that Comcast has suggested charging users extra for privacy and that Verizon shipped phones with clandestine trackers on them lalalala. Major pro to using a VPN at home—your ISP won’t be able to see your browsing history! Major con—well, some of them are hard to use. They’re hacking targets. You have to pay for most of them. And you have to trust the VPN not to log your search history and use it as well. Oy.

I’m going to go ahead and recommend TunnelBear — it’s the easiest one to use, and the one I personally use. You can get it for free on your computer to try it out, and if you like it, you can pay $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year, both for unlimited data. Because it’s easy to use (you just toggle it on and off), you’ll actually use it. And it’s available on a ton of different devices—Mac, Windows, Android, iOS and in Chrome or Opera. As for trusting them, I read through their privacy policy. While they do keep enough customer data to keep their service running, TunnelBear doesn’t log any user activity, which makes them better than most ISPs.

Gosh, it’s expensive, having all our rights ripped from us. Anyhow.

There are plenty of other VPNs—Private Internet Access, WiTopia, Nord, heck, you can even build your own. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a point—the closer you need to be a computer scientist to use it, the smaller the percentage of population that’ll be. So if looking at setup for other VPNs is making your head spin, grab up TunnelBear. It’s easy, it’s pretty, it’s better than not having a VPN even if VPNs won’t save us.

Vote In Representatives That Will Legislate For Our Digital Age

Like I said before, VPNs aren’t going to save us here. You know what will? A legislative branch prepared to deal with the realities of living a digital life. We cannot continue to cram the internet into laws written in the 18th and 19th centuries. So what are your Reps’ records on the internet and privacy? When you call and ask, can their offices speak cogently on the issue? Is there a candidate running in your district that specifically discusses digital legislation? The world is a rapidly changing place and the digital landscape makes possible a whole host of other things that weren’t possible before. We can’t ram our fingers in our ears and pretend we’re living in 1789. We have to look to a future that takes our digital lives into account.

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 543 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Nord is really easy to use, has regular sales that make it very cheap (I got mine for $2/month compared to the regular $11/month) AND it encrypts on both ends so they can’t even see what you’re doing. Just remember not to use a US server because then you’re back to square one with the ISPs (or not. I’d rather be more safe than not though).

  2. The reason ISPs have “monopoly – esque” features is that the industry is what is called a “natural monopoly”

    Industries that lend themselves towards natural monopolies have a high barrier of entry and large economies of scale

    See: utilities

  3. Thanks for all of this stuff. I really enjoy your columns!

    Do you think you could look into the risk of phone numbers being stolen (that is, ported from your phone without your consent) and the implications for 2FA? I recently read that while 2FA is wonderful, using SMS messages to your phone is a less-than-ideal implementation due to the danger of this.

    Granted, most people don’t have to worry too much about their phone # being targeted, but it could happen, and the telcos don’t have a great record on protecting people from this.

  4. i have a library VPN through UC Davis that i use so i can access jstor ~for free~ when i’m not on the campus wi-fi. is that the same thing/is my browsing history protected if i just use that all the time/i am a confused luddite pls help

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