Your Internet Privacy and VPNs

Recently the House and Senate voted to repeal laws that hadn’t quite gone active yet that were intended to keep your internet service provider (ISP) from being able to sell your browsing habits to advertisers. This, naturally, has quite a bit of “the internet” riled up. Let’s talk a bit about what is and isn’t private when you use the internet.

Whenever you use the net, you are identified primarily by your IP address. This is a unique identifying code assigned to wherever you are receiving your internet signal at. If you’re at home, your entire home has a single IP address. Even if multiple people are using the internet at your home, they are all identified as one end user – whoever is paying the bill.

Your ISP can and does log every web site you access. For the most part, this data is kept private and is only used in improvements to infrastructure. It can, however, be subpoenaed by law enforcement to combat terrorism, child pornography, and other illegal activities, used to track down copyright-violating behavior, and now it can even be sold to other companies in order to advertise to you. Though the data may be anonymized (the data is associated with an identifying code, but not your name an address), it’s still easy to tell who you are if you can sift through the data – if you spend a lot of time on, say, your Facebook page, it is highly suggestive of who owns the connection that’s generating the data the advertisers can buy without your permission.

There’s various ways to combat the lack of privacy online: first and foremost, complain to your congressman that you’re unhappy with this repeal. Secondly is a VPN. A VPN is a Virtual Private Network, and it basically amounts to routing your internet traffic through one or more other servers so that your ISP is blind to your behavior.

VPNs are cheap, usually around $40/year with some variance, and their rules may vary as well. TorrentFreak.com has an article [click here] that lists several VPN providers and some of their policies with regards to data retention and response to legal demands. There’s a number of benefits to a VPN:

  1. Your ISP can’t track your browsing habits.
  2. If you’re into pirating movies, etc., using a VPN can help prevent getting copyright claims and possible legal action taken against you (we’re not going to get into the morality of this, just know that this is a feature)
  3. Using a VPN can allow you to pose as if you’re from another country, which may allow you to view video or hear audio that may only be available in a specific country.

There’s also some disadvantages:

  1. This isn’t 100% anonymous. Law or copyright enforcement agents that are observing something of dubious legality being transmitted can request information from your VPN provider. If your connection is still active, the VPN provider may have to comply with the request. So if you’re into illegal stuff, be aware that you do it at your own risk.
  2. Traffic over a VPN may be slower, sometimes significantly, than the speeds you’re paying for from your ISP.
  3. A VPN does constitute an additional cost on top of your current internet fees.

Truth be told, ISPs are still required to allow you to opt-out from allowing them to sell your data, this change to the law (which hadn’t even gone into effect at the time of its repeal vote) merely means they aren’t required to ask your permission before selling your data. Call your ISP and inform them that you want to opt out from any and all data collection, sharing, and reselling that you are entitled to opt out of, and this change won’t really affect you.

That said, numerous web sites, including popular ones like Google and Facebook, are tracking quite a bit of your activity. The tracking allows them to improve their algorithms and also enables them to target their advertising more carefully, and your data is generally anonymous, but there’s always the possibility of it being traced back to you. As internet companies store more and more data, it does put you more at risk of being caught up in a large-scale hack, so do your research and opt-out of things that make you uncomfortable. If it feels like you need it, get a VPN.

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