Thumb online privacyAfter years of debate, the last bastions of internet privacy and freedom in the United States failed on April 4, 2017, when the Federal Communications Commission imposed net neutrality rules, that prohibit Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from discriminating against websites and other online services. 

While acting to limit discrimination, censorship and monetization of consumer information sounds like a good thing, many feel it the laws were part of the diversionary tactic used to protect the largest monopoly of national service providers. A manufactured narrative that distracted consumers from the real story, is how many experts perceive the legal changes to online information privacy. 

In this article, we will discuss what has changed after the adoption of new FCC neutrality rules, and how this may impact the privacy of data collected from smart-phone browsers, desktop computers and other mobile technology. 

Many Consumers Are Unaware of How and Why Personal Information Is Collected 

Today, if you asked a sample of consumers what “they lost” due to net neutrality, few people would be able to provide a detailed answer. They were sold a story in the process of trying to garner support, that made it seem as though independent internet providers (ISPs) were attempting to retain the right to collect, and then resell customer data.

Yet industry experts recognize that independent Internet Service Providers are already limited as far as the data that they can see, and glean from client use. In fact, large social networks and internet search engines like Google and Facebook encrypt internet traffic, so that no one else can capitalize on valuable trends, or data analytic that marketing and advertising firms are only too eager to buy. 

Before you paint Google or Facebook the hero, in terms of keeping your information private, think again. The reason for the encryption is to be able to limit other internet info farms from acquiring it. They collect it, and they sell it through monetized advertising opportunities, for businesses and to researchers. 

All major search engines and social media networks collect user data, including:

• Age
• Gender
• Location
• The device you are using (type of smart-phone, tablet, desktop, etc.)
• Shopping preferences
• Content preferences (the articles you read most often)
• Purchase trends 
• Search strings, i.e., “Best type of ice cream” or personal health queries
• Groups and association’s, you engage with (and charitable causes)
• Education and income level

Whenever a consumer browses online, the sites they visit, comments, purchases, bookmarks and clicks are registered through site cookies. While Facebook gets around privacy laws by making all data sets anonymous (your name, according to the full data use policy) will never be matched with your information, they steadfastly defend the right to sell that information as part of their revenue cycle. To see this kind of data and analytical mining in action, search for ‘t-shirts’ sites and groups for a week, and find new advertising banners (and in your private news feed) filled to the brim with t-shirt retail offers. 

How is it legal to provide that information and target consumers so directly, with retail or B2B advertising? Because every user of a search engine or social media network agrees to data collection as a term of using the service for free. That is the price consumers pay, for using the networks and services, however when you see the scope of identification that is possible through search engine queries, the ability to profile a consumer beyond reasonable norms is apparent. It can (and often is) highly sensitive information. 

How do we know if the information is anonymous, as major networks and search engines claim? How do we trust that demographic and income information isn’t being shared through multiple channels, with a criminal intent? Facebook may not be doing anything nefarious with your data, but what about the advertiser who buys the information, and then resells it again? 

Online fraud and identity theft, according to an Albuquerque criminal defense lawyer, impacted more than 15 million American in 2016. The increase was reported in the 2017 Identity Fraud Study, by Javelin Strategy & Research. Card not present (CNP) fraudulent online transactions also rose 40%, from 2015 to 2016, signally the need for more vigilance regarding the right to share and access consumer data, and strongly regulate how and when it is used. 

The FCC hobbled the ability of the competitive marketplace, to allow independent and smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer consumers other alternatives for browsing, including non-data sharing and secure platforms. That means consumers have no choice now, but to pick monopolistic American internet service providers who currently dominate the country, without providing alternatives for data privacy. 

Learn more about the current ISP broadband monopoly in the United States. Could (or should) large ISP’s be held legally responsible for selling data, that places consumers at greater risk of data and identity theft? By eliminating other more secure options, does the current FCC rule-set force consumers to risk confidential data disclosure? We’ll learn more in the months or years that follow, as the changes to net neutrality are gaining even more oppositional momentum, with recent ISP provider AT&T joining the fight to repeal legislation.

Why Consumers Should Be Using a VPN

There are multiple tracking sites that operate under different jurisdictions, that collect and monetize information, and some of the most confidential data finds its way easily to the dark web, for criminal purposes. 

Shutting down or blocking a website you suspect of illegally storing data, is not the solution. However, the public should be aware that using a no log VPN can protect confidential information, by allowing internet users to browse in private, or incognito mode. Learn more about the most highly rated 2017 secure consumer and business VPN services here

Internet users should be concerned about protecting the privacy of their search queries, demographic and other personal information that is compromised, every time a social network or search engine is used. And the legal community should be prepared for litigation and claims by private consumers, for loss due to hacking, and identity rich data mining.

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