Internet Privacy Explained For People Who Have Never Thought About Internet Privacy Before

Image via Shutterstock.
Image via Shutterstock.

Last month, Republicans put your internet privacy on the chopping block and on Monday, Trump dropped the axe on it. That seems like not a small thing to do, but then the U.S. bombed Syria and now that everyone is muttering “nuclear war” between panic attacks at work and contacting stress ulcers the size Trump’s head. If you are able to stop hyperventilating, you might want to tune into the latest episode of Big Time Dicks, in which Joanna and I explain (in layman’s terms) about what the repeal of internet privacy means for you and happens to your data once it’s out of your control.

In October, the FCC passed a regulation that would not allow companies to collect sensitive data, like browsing histories and location information, without an individual’s permission. The protections were supposed to go in place in December of this year. However, on Monday, Trump signed a resolution that repealed them, ensuring that telecom companies now have unfettered access to sensitive information about you—including financial data, health information, your browsing history, app usage, and location—and can sell it to other companies and agencies.


“There’s nothing stopping a big internet service provider from selling that data of an individual to advertisers, to even law enforcement agencies, to whoever the highest bidder is,” Steven Renderos, organizing director at the Center for Media Justice, told us. Once your data is out, it’s analyzed and used to make decisions about how to tailor ads to you and, increasingly, make predictions about our behavior. But as Renderos explained, “Algorithms that are supposed to make determinations about us often times make assumptions that may or may not be correct.” And worse, they risk exacerbating existing biases.

For example, a 2013 study by Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab found that Google searches for black names are more likely to show ads for arrest records than for white names, regardless of whether that individual has an arrest record or not. Or consider that in 2016, ProPublica found that post-conviction risk assessment tools—which try to predict likelihood of recidivism of an individual and are used to set bond amounts and release dates for prisoners—were accurate in predicting violent crime only 20 percent of the time and were twice as likely to incorrectly label a black defendant as a repeat criminal than a white defendant. Conversely, they were more likely to mislabel white defendants as low risk than black defendants. “There’s a great potential for harm that may only just end up reinforcing some discriminatory and predatory practices that we’ve seen offline,” said Renderos.

So what can you do about it, aside from dumping all technology and living out the rest of your days in a yurt in the Mongolian tundra? Start using a VPN, limit permissions on your apps, and make sure you only visit secure “HTTPS” websites. But know that none of this guarantees your data is safe from the prying eyes of ISPs.

“The fact is, this data can end up in places we never expected them to end up in,” he continued. “Whether that’s a police database that’s using predictive policing to identify places where crime might happen, or whether that’s a bank lender who’s determining whether or not to give you a loan—that’s the unfortunate wild, wild, west world that we’re living in in terms of our online privacy. What Congress did was extremely harmful and affects everyone in the United States who uses the internet.”

Big Time Dicks can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, iHeart Radio, and on the NPR One app.


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Start using a VPN

The Lifehacker site you link to disagrees (my emphasis):

Worse, some VPN providers actually serve up their own ads or sell your browsing data. The most notorious example of this was Hola Better Internet, which users caught injecting its own ads.

If you want to block ad trackers, you should use privacy-focused browser extensions like uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger. These will prevent ad-trackers from following you around and won’t slow down your web browsing like a VPN does.