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Digital Privacy in 2017

Recently congress has passed a resolution rolling back Obama era FCC Ruling limiting the use of consumer information by Internet Service Providers.  This Resolution was signed into effect by President trump.  The FCC Rules were to come into effect later this year.  This does not change current practices, but it raises the issue of how companies are collecting information about their users.  Currently the rule for collecting data by ISP companies are to have an automatic opt in, requiring a manual opt out.  This method has been criticized as being difficult to opt out and having questionable ethical standing.  The standard ethical practice is for companies to ask directly for consent to use consumer information.  The best ethical standard is to require a double opt in to ensure a consumer wants information to be shared. 

 

This rollback in the FCC rules are part of a longer trend of weakening privacy laws, and a continuing general lack of awareness by the general population regarding digital privacy.  Most people tend to be shocked about the kind of information that is collected and available about them.  Digital privacy is one of the areas where technology has been far outstripping our ability to develop and adapt ethics to current 21st century problems.  The FCC and the FTC are both examples of organizations that have struggle to adapt from organizations designed to monitor, phone companies, TV companies, and radio companies.  This issue is far beyond the standard left vs right political rhetoric about regulations, and government oversight.  The gap in consumer understanding of the technology they are using is a huge hurdle that must be overcome in the next several decades. 

 

Protecting yourself online.

You leave a trail of breadcrumbs everywhere you go.  Your ip address is tracked, and the ISP sees every website you visit and every search you make.  On top of that, large consumer companies such as Google and Facebook track your information, and where you go.  Despite the intrusive behavior of huge companies, and government agencies, there are many options to enhance your online privacy, anonymize your presence, and encrypt your data. 

Opting Out of ISP Tracking

The “simplest” method of reducing your tracked online presence is to opt out of isp tracking and selling your data.  As a recent npr podcast covered, this is not always as simple as it might seem.  ISPs often make it difficult to find the opt out section, or convoluted procedures to opt out.

VPN’s

Virtual private networks offer a way to create an encrypted tunnel between yourself and your visible external IP address.  You can use a VPN connection to Netherlands and appear to be in the Netherlands, but actually be in Spain.  Unless the end node or starting node of the connection are compromised it effectively enhances your digital privacy

Tor

Tor is a browser that protects your online privacy. The browser is based on the popular open source browser Firefox, and the tor project is open source and the community regularly updates and patches the software.  From time to time bugs and vulnerabilities become known, but the community so far has quickly fixed those issues.

Tor uses a relay network to mask your ip address, and prevent isps, and websites from finding your true location, and identity.

Data Encryption

Data encryption is a practice that everyone should use.  There a plenty of reasons to encrypt files.  Many documents stored on today’s computers contain sensitive information.  This includes, work emails, job proposals, tax information, bank account information, credit card information.  If any of this data is compromised it can be a major headache protecting yourself from identity theft or company secrets becoming public information.  While whole drive encryption might not be necessary, it usually make sense to use encryption at the file or folder level.

Encryption is not something that is expensive or hard to learn.  Veracrypt is a fork of the discontinued Truecrypt encryption program.  It is an open source program and, as long as the guidelines are followed, incredibly strong encryption suite. 

Use a CryptoCurrency

Bitcoins and similar cryptocurrencies are digital currencies that are anonymous and untraceable.  they are a way to purchase services without revealing your personal identity.  bitcoins are still treated as an asset by the IRS and should be reported on your tax returns as such.  they are not currently considered a currency by many tax agencies, but as property with capital gains rules being applicable.  this has both advantages and drawbacks.  Many online stores and service providers have started allowing bitcoins to be used to purchases goods and services.  Using CryptoCurrencies instead of credit cards insulates you from using a traceable credit card or bank account.  

Social Media a Double Edged Sword

social media has had powerful and beneficial effects the arab spring was successful in part due to the global presence of social media.  however social media can lead to a misuse or general unwelcome intrusion into our lives.  by being cognizant of how social media services track us, and what measures we can take to limit their pervasiveness we can still obtain the benefits of social media, and limit the potential downsides.