Internet hacking and snooping stories permeate the news on a daily basis. You aren’t anyone if you have never been hacked or snooped or spoofed on the Internet. But before you begin to get too paranoid about the NSA, the CIA, Facebook, Google, Adobe, SS7 flaws or any of the other Net snoopers, you may want to set your sights squarely on your Internet Service Provider (ISP). That’s right…..that company that provides your Internet connection may be the worst of all of your snoopers. It turns out that ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner and others routinely track and share data about your online activities. The chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revealed recently that M since Internet service providers handle all network traffic, the companies have a “broad view of all of your unencrypted online activity.” He added that “even when data is encrypted, your broadband provider can piece together significant amounts of information about you — including private information such as a chronic medical condition or financial problems — based on your online activity.
Whoa! ISPs are Net snoops? No wait, it gets worse. Because more devices in the home are now being connected to Wi-Fi, the ISPs also have more ways to collect data on their customers. In a recent enforcement action against Verizon, the F.C.C. found that the company was using “supercookies” to continue tracking the activity of users through mobile browsers even when the customers tried to delete cookies from browsers and clear their browsing histories. And now for the worst part; there’s almost nothing you can do to protect yourself. Ouch!
The only way to curb this ISP surveillance is through regulatory action. And recently, the FCC took the first step towards protecting consumers. Federal regulators on Thursday proposed a set of privacy rules for Internet service providers that would significantly curb the ability of companies like Comcast and Verizon to share data about their customers’ online activities with advertisers without permission from users. These rules aren’t super strong; rather than prohibiting ISP snooping, they try to control it through disclosure. The FCC is proposing to require ISPs to inform consumers about what information is being collected about them, explain how it’s being used, and under what circumstances it will be shared with other entities. Consumers are supposed to be able to opt-out, if they wish. And the ISPs must protect from hackers any consumer data that they collect.
Of course, the ISPs are not going to roll over and accept these new rules. They’ve already threatened lawsuits, claiming that the FCC has no jurisdiction over ISPs. So it may be months, if not years, before protections are put in place. In the meantime, keep in mind that before you spend too much energy fretting over cellphone hackers, the NSA or the police, you may want to remember that anything you do on the Net is being monitored by your ISP. And there are currently few, if any rules, to limit their voyeurism. Double ouch!
At least companies like Google and Facebook are a bit more polite in their snooping. Aside from the obvious fact that they don’t charge AT ALL for their services (note to ISPs….change your business model), these Internet data collectors give customers come control over the level of snooping. For example, after you’ve logged into your Google account go to https://history.google.com/history. Then click the arrow next to “last week” and change it to “all time” to see everything Google has collected about you since your Google account was created. You can delete items or update this setting anytime in Settings. In Settings click on the “hamburger-looking thing” icon – three horizontal lines in the upper-left corner of the page – to open the settings for your Google history. This will open up a whole plethora of controls that allow you to choose that Google collects about you. These “Activity Controls” are where you can set and forget your privacy preferences.
Similarly, Facebook will give its customers control over their privacy settings at this link: https://www.facebook.com/help/325807937506242/. To view and adjust your privacy settings, Click in the upper-right corner of any Facebook page, select Settings from the dropdown menu and then select Privacy on the left.