Your Internet Versus Your Privacy
30 March 2017
Updated 02 December 2017: Fixed the uBlock Origin link
While many of us are generally aware that various sites track us in order to sell advertisements, we usually don’t give much thought to whether our ISP might be collecting similar information. The expectation of privacy from an Internet Service Provider is important because they are the gateway to the Internet. No matter how many anti-tracking browser add-ons you might have, your Internet provider can still see what you visit online. The only way to avoid your ISP seeing what websites you visit is to use a service such as a VPN - which is sort of like paying for a secure gateway to the Internet somewhere else, that your ISP can’t see. This means that unless you are willing and able to pay for privacy, your Internet provider likely knows more about you than you’re comfortable with.
As being tracked online becomes pretty much ubiquitous, privacy has become more valuable. Almost everything on the Internet has some form of tracking installed. Even this website (thenaterhood.com) uses a very common tracking tool called Google Analytics, which makes it possible to drill down into all kinds of information about visitors. Other websites gather data about visitors that they sell or use directly to target advertisements to the people who seem most likely to click on them. That sort of data is extremely valuable on a wide scale - the U.S. was worth over $2.8 billion in advertising revenue to Facebook in 2016. What’s worse, is that this tracking isn’t limited to a single site - visiting any website with Facebook “like” buttons is enough for Facebook to track where you’ve been - and there are many other services that do the same thing. This is often not a known problem for the layperson, but it can become one when a quick search results in a month of banner ads for something embarrassing (or amusing to the people sitting nearby on public transit). There are relatively easy ways to prevent this sort of tracking - browser add-ons such as ublock can be installed that block most tracking services.
Since access to the Internet is more or less the normal state of affairs for many people, it’s easy to forget just how much information can be gathered by a service provider. While encryption helps, it’s still possible to see what websites are visited and how often. Hiding this usually requires buying access to a VPN service to hide traffic from your Internet provider or using a technology like Tor. At some point, the service you access the Internet through needs to know where to send your traffic. Your connected devices need to reach out to the Internet to fetch updates and other information and seeing what they talk to makes it possible to figure out at a minimum who made them. This information can be used to determine all sorts of things about a person’s political views, income, health, and even when they’re most likely to be home. Should this leak - either through hacking or from the highest bidder - this opens up a lot of potential problems. It makes it possible to trick people into giving their information to the wrong website (phishing) and even opens up burglary possibilities.
Net neutrality regulations improve online privacy because they can help to restrict what ISPs are allowed to track in Internet traffic. By forcing Internet providers to treat all traffic equally, there is less reason for ISPs to examine the traffic passing through their network for tracking purposes. In the same vein, it makes defending any such traffic inspection much more difficult. There are valid and necessary reasons to inspect network traffic. ISPs need to ensure the security of their network against malware, hacking attempts, and illegal activity. Completely forbidding ISPs from looking at traffic would be very bad for the health of the Internet. However, other than for tracking individuals, there is very little reason to keep records of traffic content and of course, even less reason to sell them.
Making privacy a commodity introduces yet another split between the informed elite who can pay for equal access to information and privacy, and those who can’t. Already, there are problems with accessing the Internet at all in the U.S. with price being the main reason people don’t have an Internet connection. What’s worse still, is that being able to afford privacy does not make privacy accessible. Knowledge of how to use a VPN or Tor requires some technical knowledge, which not everyone has. As we work to make the Internet equally accessible to everyone, more people are opened to the perils of their data being sold to the highest bidder or hacked, simply due to not knowing that protection is needed. The fight for equality needs to extend beyond the physical world and into the digital one, especially as the two mingle more and more.