Understanding Internet Privacy In The Digital Age

With Congress’ repeal of the FCC’s new internet privacy regulations — so new, in fact, they hadn’t even been put into use — the conversation about the data market has returned to the national spotlight. Unfortunately, despite how it directly affects every person who uses the internet, nearly no one understands any of it. What is ‘privacy’ in the digital age? How should we talk about it?

The digital world and the traces we leave therein have little in common with our ideas about privacy in the physical world. Hiding your screen from prying eyes doesn’t do much to prevent data collection. Counter intuitively, using your home network for sensitive online activity instead of public networks might even be less private. It turns out what happens behind closed doors — and happens routinely behind the same closed door — is actually easier to collect.

What’s the better way of conceptualizing all of it, then? And how might consumers be more conscious of the consequences of their choices?

First, consider the actors at stake. Companies like Facebook and Google, called “edge providers,” have been able to collect data, use it for advertising, or sell it for ad purposes for some time now — but the data they collect is restricted to your activity on their sites and through their ad network. Simply put (perhaps too simply), Google only knows what you do on Google.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like AT&T or Comcast, have a much more intimate view of your activity as anything you do on the internet necessarily goes through them — medical information, financial information, and all sorts of other sensitive stuff one might do in the private light of their laptop. But the restrictions ISPs face in using that data have been more stringent. In arguing for the repeal of the FCC’s regulations, ISPs say it’s unfair they can’t engage with the big data market like edge providers can.

The usual metaphor characterizes ISPs as the ‘roads’ one uses to visit the ‘stores’ of edge providers. But if we are to understand digital privacy in terms of the physical world, perhaps a more useful way of thinking about it might be this: ISPs are our personal assistants, our messengers. Our stand-ins. The ones we send out to pick up our prescriptions. The ones we trust with our PINs. The ones that know where we live. It may sound alarmist, but it is important to remember that these ‘roads’ know an awful lot about us.

There are still regulations in place preventing the connection of collected data with any particular person. Also, being voracious consumers of the internet, we often connect through many different ISPs on a given day: wifi at home, 4G on our commutes, public networks at coffee shops, restaurants, airports, et cetera. As such, our activity is often segmented and collected piecemeal — unless we always keep our sensitive information behind the same closed door.

Male freelancer works on laptop computer sitting at a coffee shop looking worried

Should we despair? How does the least tech-savvy among us retain their privacy? The details will always require technical knowledge and time to sort through, but there are options for the rest of us. Consider how you navigate the internet and where you do it. If you can stand a bit slower of a connection, resources like Tor are invaluable in helping disguise your online activity. Use HTTPS instead of HTTP when you can — it’s a newer and safer protocol that encrypts the data you share with any given edge provider. So, while the fact that you spent 5 hours on Facebook is clearly available to your ISP, using HTTPS at least masks the particulars of your stalking.

While we often have no choice in ISPs, we can opt to use more conscientious edge providers. Take note of the privacy and data collection policies of the companies you patronize. If you have sensitive data to transfer, don’t just throw it up on Google Drive — research more secure ways of sharing your files. If you need to search the internet privately, consider different search engines. While sifting through EULAs can be exhausting and confusing, a little thought goes a long way. Just know you can’t expect closing the blinds to do much good.