Internet Providers Are Now Allowed to Sell Your Private Info. Here's How to Stop Them.
On Tuesday, Congress voted to gut landmark FCC rules that protect your right to privacy on the internet. This means internet service providers (ISPs) such as Verizon, Comcast and Time-Warner will soon be peddling your data to advertisers -- and they'll be doing so without asking permission. If you're feeling a creeping sense of vulnerability, just know that it’s warranted: With the blessings of Republicans in Congress, ISPs want everything from the details of your search history, to data regarding your health, finances, app-usage, location and sex-life syphoned up and sold to the highest bidder to better serve you ads. The rule is still awaiting approval from President Trump, but all signs indicate that he's poised to sign off on it.
If this sounds like the culmination of a George Orwell novel, it's not far off. But there are still safeguards everyday consumers can take to ensure their data doesn’t fall prey to ISP vultures. Enter Alex Heid, a former hacker and chief research officer at SecurityScorecard. Heid spoke to Thrillist about the rollback of FCC protections, offering sage-advice on what you can do to protect your privacy online.
“The most simple thing that someone can do is make use of some kind of ad-blocking plugin,” Heid explains. Simple extensions like these, available for download and operable on widely used web-browsers like Safari, Opera, Chrome, Microsoft Edge or Firefox, prevent advertisements from being displayed. Heid recommends AdBlock -- one the most popular extensions available, as it’s been downloaded over 200 million times. This will swat away all the annoying plugs for sunglasses and cruise vacations that pervade your online experience.
Using some programs might seem daunting and overly-technical, but there are tons of convenient tools that mask your online habits in a pinch. One in particular that earns plaudits from Heid is Ghostery. This extension, available for Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Edge, sleuths around while you surf the web, tracking all the third-parties that eavesdrop on your activity. “It tells you all the various third parties that are hooked into that website, all the different advertising companies,” Heid says. “Basically you can see how far data is being passed along the lines, especially when you visit a popular site.”
Another that makes Heid’s list is NoScript. What this Mozilla Firefox extension does is disable by default certain “active content” that can be easily exploited to harvest your data or compromise your hardware. Using this, it’d be up to you to grant permission to certain sites that might be party to a rogue advertising campaign, regardless of what the FCC wants.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and using one allows you to anonymize your internet activity via some level of encryption. Encryption is a way of masking the contents of what you do online so only authorized parties can understand it.
VPNs sound like “they’d be technically challenging to implement, but it’s actually made to be very user friendly,” according to Heid. Here’s the gist: If you use a VPN, your internet provider won’t be able to see your traffic. A VPN lets you “purchase a proxy server,” allowing you to browse the internet from a different machine, perhaps miles away from your actual location. Most, if not all VPNs will incur a small subscription fee, which is often paid on a monthly or annual basis. VPNs shut ISPs in the dark. While using one, ISPs "don’t know what you’re doing, other than that you’re connecting to a VPN service,” says Heid. Using any number of easy to implement VPNs, like HotSpot Shield, DotVPN, or TunelloVPN, among others, make your internet activity look like gibberish to advertisers. Make sure the VPN service you subscribe to has satisfactory ratings, of course, because you're most likely going to be paying for one. (There are some free VPN programs, such as OpenVPN, which is pretty well-regarded).
While these solutions might not completely protect you from the ISP dragnet, they certainly give you a worthwhile shot. It's probably worth it to try at least one of them out -- especially now that it's open season on your data, and privacy is increasingly looking like a thing from the past.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.