Internet Privacy: What's next?
By Laura Haight
Originally published in Upstate Business Journal on April 7, 2017
The Internet is becoming the 21st century’s answer to the airplane.
Flying used to be an experience. You dressed up, you approached the flight with anticipation, you were treated to white glove service… and they frequently lost your luggage. OK, it wasn’t perfect. But it wasn’t the overstuffed, peanut-package-hoarding, nightmare of a flying bus ride that it is today.
So it may be with the Internet. So much promise, so much opportunity. And so much greed.
First came the pop-ups, then the auto-playing videos, then the relentless advertising of items you were only casually glancing at months ago. And, of course, the scams and cyber crimes.
Nevertheless, we persisted. Because the Internet has become an essential part of our lives, similar to the phone company. In fact, just like the phone company.
Last week’s congressional vote to rescind a privacy rule probably will have less impact than we might have feared. But it is only the first salvo in a battle that could rage throughout the current administration’s term.
The impact is less than feared primarily because the now repealed Broadband Privacy Rule regulating ISPs had not really taken effect yet. So, technically, it prevented you from getting enhanced privacy. Feel better now? Me, neither.
Nor should we, because one reason the rule was deemed unnecessary was that the Federal Trade Commission already had jurisdiction over privacy protection. But, according to an analysis by Tech Crunch, the Federal Communications Commission took over that responsibility in 2015. So technically neither the FCC nor the FTC has responsibility for making and monitoring privacy rules for ISPs.
Until some provision is made to fix that – and if these privacy rules are reinstated (a big if) – ISPs have a lot of leeway, and Internet users have little recourse. Some argue, what’s the diff? Most of us already choose to give away a ton of information on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites. But the operative word is “choose”. Additionally, those apps only have access to what you do while you are using the app. Your ISP (think Verizon, AT&T or Charter) sees it all.
And now they can sell it all also, which makes us all more vulnerable to ransomware. When hackers can buy your browsing history, what are the odds there will be something there you don’t want your spouse or your boss to see? And they didn’t even have to hack into your computer to get it.
There’s not much you can do, either. The Electronic Frontier Foundation offers an add-on for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera browsers that “encrypts your communications with many major websites.” Called HTTPS Everywhere, the utility doesn’t work quite everywhere and isn’t without some bugs, but it’s a start.
Can we buy Trey Gowdy’s browsing history?
There was a lot of outrage last week about this vote. And it started a growth spurt in GoFundMe campaigns attempting to raise money to buy and publicize the browsing history of elected officials.
As fun as that sounds, it’s not legal. According to The Verge, only “aggregate” customer information can be shared. The Telecommunications Act prohibits the sharing of data that would be “individually identifiable.”
So, if you plunked down a few bucks to make a statement, consider that a lesson learned. But don’t think that means your privacy is safe, especially from hackers. Information maintained is information at risk. Period.
Another idea gaining traction is a good old fashioned VPN (Virtual Private Network). Fortune has reported that the vote and near certainty of presidential approval have businesses reconsidering VPN technology.
VPNs, however, are not for the technophobe. There are software and hardware flavors with software being cheaper and less secure; hardware being more expensive and more complicated, but much more protected. For a business that doesn’t have a VPN, this is probably a good time to look at one. But for home users, the adage “you get what you pay for” may ring painfully true.
And this latest news is really only the vanguard. Next up on the digital communications/privacy agenda is Net Neutrality. Most of us didn’t really understand this when it came up in first came up in 2014 or was approved in March 2015. When the FCC approved the Net Neutrality rules, this column called it a victory for small business and for innovation. The current chairman of the FCC Ajit Pai, however, was no fan and voted against it.
The issue is agnostic accessibility to the internet. What if startup developers were required to pay a premium to get decent bandwidth for their apps or websites? What if businesses’ accessibility to internet tools was determined based on their size, market penetration, and budget?
Critics of the 2015 decision say those are scare tactics, but the public seems to be behind them. The FCC received more than a million public comments on the rule, the vast majority approving the strict nondiscrimination rules and an open, neutral Internet.
Its repeal is not a slam dunk, but certainly, Trump and Pai have signaled their intention. On the positive side for consumers, a 2016 federal court decision has plopped down a couple of hurdles for the FCC to get over. It declared that the Internet and high-speed Internet service can be considered a utility, as essential to American life as power and telephone service.
Our lives have moved online, our business is conducted online, our operational systems - hydroelectric power dams, electric grid routing, nuclear power plants are all controlled by systems that are now part of a massive digital grid. Accessibility, reliability and security are not political footballs; they are as essential water from the tap, or power from a light switch.
Despite our insatiable hunger for bandwidth, the U.S. has still not cracked the top 10 in global Internet connection speed (we’re 14th with an average of 17.2 Mbps, according to Akamai’s quarterly report for Q4 2016). Who’s #1? South Korea.
The FCC had best be ready to be tested. By the courts and by the innovators and small businesses demanding access, speed, reliability and security from what is one of our most critical public utilities.