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Saturday, January 28, 2023

In case you haven’t heard, Congress recently voted to allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to sell your browsing history to corporations. Not that they weren’t doing that already to a degree — anyone who has seen a targeted ad on Facebook will know this — but with the repeal of the 2016 Federal Communications Commission broadband privacy regulations, ISPs won’t need our permission to gather and sell sensitive private information. This includes things we kind of figured they were selling, like browsing history and app downloads, but also things we didn’t really want to think about them selling, like location, financial and medical data.

The good news is there are ways to combat this. Using a VPN — Virtual Private Network — masks what IP address (the unique number assigned to a computer by the network) net traffic originates from by routing that traffic through other servers owned by the VPN. This means all your ISP can see is that you connected to the VPN, but not what sites you visited (as long as DNS leak protection is enabled — just check the settings on your VPN).

One of the cheapest ways to set up a VPN is to use the web browser Opera, which you may recall from the Blackberry age and which began advertising plans for a free built-in VPN last year. This isn’t perfect, though: Unlike a full VPN, Opera only masks your browsing activity, not any other activity that uses your internet connection. It is also important to keep in mind Opera is a business and must profit from the decision somehow. While the exact terms of Opera’s VPN are not quite clear yet, it is likely that while the browser will prevent ISPs from selling your browsing history, Opera may be selling that data itself or at the very least collecting it. For a full VPN that does not log your data, you’ll need a subscription, usually in the neighborhood of $5 per month depending on bandwidth restrictions.

Tor — short for The Onion Router — is another browser-based method of masking your IP address. The nonprofit browser works like a VPN by routing traffic through servers owned by volunteers who maintain the Tor network. Unfortunately, Tor’s use for pirating, black-market transactions and child pornography led Congress last year to allow the FBI to issue warrants, hack, search or surveil any device used to download or run Tor. The same goes for any VPN, however, so Tor isn’t the only option that leaves you open to government surveillance.

For many of us, that was a lot of information to take in at once, and some may be wondering why using Google Incognito won’t do the trick. The only thing Incognito does is not save your browsing history on your own computer; Google and ISPs still keep that data in their records.

It may seem like you don’t have many options to protect your privacy online. One way or another, corporations and the government have ways to get ahold of your personal data. The future of privacy is bleak, but there is something else you can do. We’ve seen many fine examples in the last few months.

The solution is activism. Take the fight offline, to your city and state representatives. Even in the last few weeks we’ve seen representatives change their votes, hold town halls and otherwise take into account the wishes of their constituents. If you care about your privacy, let them know. We have the capacity to create change, both in the real world and online.

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