On Monday, April 1, 2017, Congress passed and President Trump signed a bill to repeal rules that require ISPs to get your permission before selling information about your online habits. You can read more about it at USA Today or Ars Technica.
As soon as it was publicized, we received inquiries from Ayrstone customers about how they can protect themselves. Unfortunately, we really don’t have much we can offer. There is a lot of talk about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and some about the Tor Project, but neither is a very satisfactory solution.
VPNs securely route all your Internet traffic to the vendor’s routers, and then sends that traffic to the Internet. This will prevent your ISP from seeing your Internet habits (because, from their perspective, all your traffic is going to the VPN vendor), but clever spies can untangle your traffic from the VPN’s stream, and there is a danger that the VPN will simply collect your information and sell it.*
The Tor project is the result of a U.S. Navy project (paradoxically, while the government spends your money to reduce your privacy, they also have spent money to improve your privacy…). It is voluntary network of computers – you download their software, and all your traffic is routed through a seemingly random collection of computers around the globe before appearing again on the Internet from a random location. This is much more secure, but there are cases where agencies have re-assembled data from the Tor network.
Either VPNs or Tor will slow down your network, and neither offers perfect privacy. Various ISPs have vowed not to sell your internet usage data, and several states have started investigating passing local laws to protect privacy.
Add to this, unfortunately, that your ISP is far from the only source of information about your Internet usage. Google, Microsoft, Apple, and many, many others gather LOTS of information about your usage, and they use it to target advertising to you.
So there are three things you can do: first, use VPN or Tor software to increase your privacy, second, talk to your lawmakers about re-instating (and, preferably, increasing the scope of) the regulations around privacy, and, third, follow the advice of my old boss, Scott McNealy.
*There is another use of VPN – to connect a remote network to your LAN – and many of our customers use this kind of a VPN. In this case, you have a VPN router on your network, and you connect using VPN software or another VPN router to a remote network, such as (for example) a remote location where you have a different Internet “drop” from your home. In this use of a VPN, devices at that remote location get IP addresses and appear on the network as if they were in your home network, even though their traffic is routed out through a different Internet connection. This means you can be in the remote location and send a job to your printer at home, and it will be printed and ready when you get home, or you can access files on your home PC when you’re away. This does not help your privacy, except against information theft on public Internet connections, but it can make remote working more convenient.