In a party-line vote, Republicans voted to roll back regulations passed during Obama’s terms that would have prevented Internet Service Providers from selling all your internet traffic information without your consent. The act was called “Restoring Internet Freedom,” but “Destroying Internet Privacy” would have been a more accurate title. Looking through the official filing’s comments (there are over 22 million of them) reveals that almost everyone is against this move. This is a move that should concern anyone who is concerned with civil liberties, privacy, or overreach from large institutions. The only winners here are the ISPs.
Why ISPs Are Different Than Search Engines, Social Networks, Apps
The argument ISPs made was that them selling information on the sites we visit is analogous to Facebook or Google using information they collect to target users for advertisements. There are a few very important differences that make the cases very different. Services like Google and Facebook need to collect our data to function. We’re purposely giving them the data and in exchange it makes our experience better. And it keeps them free for the most part. ISPs we already pay money to move data from one place to another, they have no legitimate reason to inspect the contents of that information. The internet should be considered a public utility, many of us require it to function in the new information economy, and most of us don’t have a choice of ISP because they’re local monopolies.
And it’s not just search history. ISPs have access to ALL the internet traffic coming into and out of your network. With the proliferation of smart devices, when the internet of things takes off they’ll potentially be getting data from our appliances, toilets, fitbits, phones, watches etc. What happens when Elon Musk’s brain implants are developed and connected to the internet, can our ISPs collect/sell our thoughts as they pass through our network to our cloud storage? Thanks to our elected representatives, they can! I bet not a single one of the politicians that voted for this thought the implications through.
ISPs say the data will be anonymized, we have nothing to worry about, but there are a lot of very smart people figuring out how to cross-reference large datasets and de-anonymize scrubbed data. One example with anonymized Netflix rankings.
Maybe with JUST the data ISPs sell you might not be able to pinpoint an individual, but with a little creativity and some cross-referencing a lot can be figured out.
Say you have a list of search terms (with identifying data scrubbed) bought from an ISP for Males in an age range in a geographical area. And you’re able to get some sort of public geographical and time data for a target person (maybe they “checked in” at a location on Facebook or Foursquare or whatever). They went to a restaurant named “Paul Ryan’s Pizza Shop”. You could easily query a database of search data for terms similar to “Paul Ryan’s Pizza Shop”.
Then you write a script to take all of your target’s check-in locations, and pull all records that have searched for similar terms. You end up with a bunch of records, run some statistical analysis to see which records correlate most closely with all the public check-ins. Or you search people’s FB/Twitter/IG timelines for keywords about being sick in and look for corresponding searches for symptoms or medicines or remedies, etc. Or you look for unique misspellings (anyone seen The Jinx on HBO?), etc etc, you get the picture.
For any one individual target, maybe this works maybe it doesn’t, but there is so much data out there, and each new dataset offers more opportunities for cross-referencing. Automate these processes to mass target people and keep adding more datasets and I’ll bet you’ll start uniquely identifying people.
What Can We Do?
Every single site/app should be thoroughly encrypted, and I’d recommend VPNs at the router level to keep from being exploited or blackmailed, thanks to (basically every Republican in) congress. What a bunch of immoral, or clueless people we’ve elected. The irony is that the Republicans are constantly railing against government overreach, but are apparently happy to hand over the people’s privacy to large communications monopolies. I hope every one of them has to answer for all the weird porn they’ve watched next time they’re up for election.