It's time to jump into the personal information trenches. Did you hear that? That's the sound of the pin being pulled from the grenade that is our collective online privacy. Doing his best impersonation of George S. Patton, President Trump recently signed Senate Joint Resolution 34, also known as Congress's lavish consumer information giveaway to Internet Service Providers.
Gridlocked on a wide variety of issues, the House and the Senate somehow found the political wherewithal to nullify safeguards the Obama Administration put in place to prevent ISPs -- Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Charter et. al -- from monetizing consumer browsing histories in the way Google and Facebook already do.
S.J.Res. 24 gives ISPs carte blanche to raid our online behaviors, analyze them and then hawk the result of that data collection--our cyber profiles--to the highest bidders.
Thankfully, California is taking a stand against this legislation. Lawmakers there have introduced a bill that aims to revive broadband privacy rules jettisoned by Congress and blessed by Trump. Hopefully, other states will follow suit, but even if California is the lone bellwether, it will make the free pass given to ISP's harder to use.
Obviously with the threats out there multiplying all the time, it's important to adopt best practices, which boils down to minimizing your digital footprint and thus reducing your attackable surface.
The technology exists to make ISP profiling irrelevant. A virtual private network, or VPN, allows anyone to surf the internet without being tracked. Here are a few things you should know about VPNs:
What's a VPN?
A VPN is a network that routinely encrypts your Internet connections by bouncing your requests around the Internet, thus obscuring where you are, and where you going on the Internet. The scrambled information renders your travels online indecipherable to ISPs--or anyone else.
VPNs are common in corporate settings; they are a common way that employees at large enterprises are directed by cyber security protocol to connect remotely to a company network.
Outside of corporate America, VPN usage is comparatively light. That said, VPNs are used much more by the general populace in places like Turkey and China, where content is likely to be heavily censored.
When should I use one?
If you are tapping into an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot at a café or an airport or a hotel, you should use a VPN, because it's child's play for a hacker to eavesdrop on open Wi-Fi connections.
VPNs also come in handy when you want to browse freely in countries that block traffic to some sites. China, for instance, blocks Facebook, Google and NYTimes.com. Of course, not all VPN use is in the service of skirting state censorship. People who download copyrighted content from torrent streams--or illegal or off-color content--are big users of VPNs as well.
The new legislation provides another reason to use a VPN: it will stop your ISP from tracking your browsing history without first getting your permission. And remember, there's nothing you can do to stop them.
How do I find a good one?
Many VPN services are free at a basic level of service. Count on most providers to offer you more robust protections as an up-sell. With so many VPNs on the market, due diligence is a must. As with any other online subscription, there are plenty of blog reviews and consumer comments.
Pay close attention to a VPN's terms of service. Some VPNs will state clearly that they don't keep logs of user activity. Others are not clear or just don't say, and could, at least theoretically, sell your browsing history on the open market before the ISP even gets around to it. Some experts believe it's better to avoid free VPN services and stick with vendors that require a subscription up front, as they are less likely to sell your data.
A few general rules: stick with a VPN supplier that has been around for a while, with many good reviews, and the financial strength to sustain their services.
The latency question
Because VPNs add a layer of encryption, latency can come into play. This is the time it takes for the request to go from you through the maze that makes VPNs effective to your destination. The weaker the Wi-Fi connection the worse the latency potential.
There are numerous other potential complications you should be aware of. Some lightweight VPNs are mere browser extensions that only encrypt browser activity. Some VPN services ask for higher fees to access faster speeds; some impose downloading and streaming restrictions.
Meanwhile, certain popular websites have taken steps to block visitors using certain VPN providers, generally those known to be patronized by malicious hackers. The top VPN services tend to be implemented in ways that minimize latency as much as possible, and are forthcoming about what happens to their users' histories.
Bottom line: using a VPN isn't the most convenient solution to the personal information-giveaway facilitated by Senate Joint Resolution 34 . However, they do represent an effective way to protect your privacy on line. The burden of privacy, now more so than ever, is squarely on the individual. And for that, we can all thank Congress and President Trump.