Poof Goes Your Online Privacy

By the time you read this, it may already be too late to stop it.

And your ISP may have just logged the fact that you landed on a page containing a discussion about online privacy.

Paranoid? Well, yes, but with good reason. In mid-March, the U.S. Senate voted 50-48 on a resolution to repeal the FCC’s privacy rules. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly voted (215-205) to approve S.J. Res 34, the CRA (Congressional Review Act) resolution to repeal the FCC’s privacy rules. At the moment, the bill is awaiting President Trump’s signature. The White House has indicated that the President will sign the bill, although it has not announced an exact date for the signing.

This isn’t breaking news, of course. Many groups have been vocally opposed to the bill, especially the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In fact, here’s how the EFF describes the bill and the potential effects it may have concerning your online activities:

Should President Donald Trump sign S.J. Res. 34 into law, big Internet providers will be given new powers to harvest your personal information in extraordinarily creepy ways. They will watch your every action online and create highly personalized and sensitive profiles for the highest bidder. All without your consent. This breaks with the decades long legal tradition that your communications provider is never allowed to monetize your personal information without asking for your permission first. This will harm our cybersecurity as these companies become giant repositories of personal data. It won't be long before the government begins demanding access to the treasure trove of private information Internet providers will collect and store.

If all this seems a bit esoteric, the EFF’s March 26, 2017 post, Five Ways Cybersecurity Will Suffer If Congress Repeals the FCC Privacy Rules, is a great resource. The post opens with a bit of background:

Back in October of 2016, the Federal Communications Commission passed some pretty awesome rules that would bar your Internet provider from invading your privacy. The rules would keep Internet providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable from doing things like selling your personal information to marketers, inserting undetectable tracking headers into your traffic, or recording your browsing history to build up a behavioral advertising profile on you—unless they got your permission first. The rules were a huge victory for U.S. Internet users who value their privacy.

And then follows with how repealing these rules will affect you:

But what many people don’t realize is that Americans’ cybersecurity is also at risk. That’s because privacy and security are two sides of the same coin: privacy is about controlling who has access to information about you, and security is how you maintain that control. You usually can’t break one without breaking the other, and that’s especially true in this context…

While many American’s may have at least some modicum of what online privacy is, when it comes to cybersecurity, well, maybe not so much. At least that’s according to the results of a recently released (March 22, 2017) Pew Research Center survey, called What the Public Knows About Cybersecurity. The survey, the complete report of which can be downloaded here, was “designed to test Americans’ knowledge of a number of cybersecurity issues and terms.” Unfortunately, it turns out that a majority of internet users in America “are unclear about some key cybersecurity topics, terms and concepts.”

Many Americans are unsure on a range of cybersecurity topics

You can test your own level of knowledge by taking the Pew Research Center’s 10-question Cybersecurity Knowledge Quiz. I took the quiz and (without cheating) answered 10 of 10 questions correctly. That meant I “scored better than 100% of the public of the public and the same as 1%.” (At least I can claim to be a one-percenter now…)

If the prospects of living under constant internet scrutiny by Big ISP Brother shocks you, get in touch with the White House and voice your opinion by asking the President not to sign S.J. Res 34, the CRA resolution to repeal the FCC’s privacy rules.

For what it’s worth, I wrote my Congressman before the House voted. One of his nieces or cousins goes to the same high school that my daughter does. After the usual introductory babble and pointing out the shared connection, here’s the approach I took:

My point…is to remind you that both young ladies are of a generation that is fully immersed in the internet and has been since birth. It touches every aspect of their lives, including school, home, and social interactions. If anything, the internet’s omnipresence will only continue to encompass more and more as these young ladies enter adulthood and forge their own paths in life.

I, for one, do not relish the idea of allowing my daughter’s internet searches, purchases, communications, as well as her sources of news and other information to be monitored, stored, and potentially sold by private companies at will. As a U.S. Congressman, you well know that knowledge is power—and this kind of deep knowledge regarding a person’s usage of a technology that is crucial to full participation in modern life is extremely powerful. That power can be used for good, benign, or bad purposes with the choice predominantly being determined by which one generates the most return on investment.

Before you vote on S.J. Res 34, the CRA resolution to repeal the FCC’s privacy rules, please consider the effect that eliminating these privacy protections will have on the futures of not only my daughter and your cousin, but also those of the roughly 400,000 other young [citizens of our state] who are of the same generation—and, of course, the futures of all the millions of other [citizens of our state].

I am not a Republican. You, of course, are. But when it’s brought down to the level of my daughter and your cousin, I don’t see this as a partisan issue. We both want to see what’s best for them today and, especially, tomorrow. All things considered, I cannot see how allowing private ISPs to have unfettered access to the records of their internet activities improves or enriches my daughter’s and your cousin’s lives at all. Unless you are fully confident that you could—in person—look in the eyes of these promising young women and assure them, in all honesty and with a blissfully clear conscience, that passing S.J. Res 34, is 100% in their best interests, please vote against the resolution.

You and I grew up in the midst of the Cold War learning how to “duck and cover” and knowing where the fallout shelters were located. We didn’t, however, need to worry about how a record of our digital actions might be used to destroy reputations, stifle dissent, or invisibly manipulate us. If we won’t allow our own government to have ready access to this information without cause, why should we be willing to hand it over to an unaccountable third party?

The result? He voted for the bill. But I can assure you (and him), in 2018, I won’t be voting for him.

If you’re interested in finding out how the members of Congress—who supposedly represent you—votedThe Verge posted a great piece by T.C. Sottek called, The 265 members of Congress who sold you out to ISPs, and how much it cost to buy them.

Header image courtesy of Department of Homeland Security.

jmedarts's picture
Mark Fleischmann's picture
That last part really brings it home.

PS -- The president signed the bill yesterday.

David Vaughn's picture
Here's the deal that no one is talking about. This action by Congress STOPPED the implementation of the new rules that were put in by executive action by the Obama administration and NEVER WENT INTO EFFECT. So nothing is being taken away from anyone, since these companies can do that right now with no penalty since the rules, which were supposed to go into effect AFTER Obama left office, so in reality, NOTHING HAS CHANGED! As usual, the media acting as if the world is going to come to an end because this law was passed to overrule executive overreach in the first place. Remember, this is how things are supposed to be done...Congress votes on something, up or down, and the President signs it if he'd like it to become law. I think the majority of people forget that because the last four years we've been led by a phone and a pen. I suggest someone watches the School House Rock video on how a Bill becomes a law. The FCC overreached and Congress is doing their job and legislating what the Executive Branch should be doing.