What’s a user do? Suppose, when you want to cover your tracks while browsing online? Pop open a browser window – Chrome, Safari, Firefox, IE and simply switch to Incognito mode right? Wrong. Incognito mode simply stops the browser itself from storing your history or browsing data. It does nothing to your ISP’s ability to view, track and store information about your web browsing behaviour and data.
Big brother is watching. Well, okay, it’s not as dire. But ISPs or Internet Service Providers can see everything you, as a user, do online., despite myriad privacy precautions. All other forms of ensuring online privacy methods such as, browsing without saving cookies, temporary files, clearing browsing history, enabling a do not track mode and more are intended for advertisers only.
ISPs can still see everything.
What does your ISPs collect and store?
Your browsing history, your clicks and your files downloaded are tracked and stored within your ISPs data centers, wherever these may be. While there isn’t active surveillance going on, even this stored data presents a problem. ISPs can always target individual users, not just through behavioral data but also through personal, identifying information.
Your ISP can also track these pieces of data and use them to sell to marketing companies at a profit. Many Internet companies are offering a premium or paid add-on where customers have to pay them to opt out of having their personal information or browsing history. In other words, this additional monthly fee comes at the expense of users and you may have to pay in order to keep your information secure.
Now, theoretically, your personal information could be made available to anyone who might ask about an individual’s browsing history. But, in reality, this is not usually the way it works. Even ISPs have their own privacy policies, which clearly state what can and can’t be be sold and to whom.
In the United States, for example, ISP Verizon was running a supercookie program, which essentially allowed these ISP giants to monitor which sites customers visit, their tastes and their interests. It’s called a supercookie because it casts a net so wide and deep, identifying users with such granularity, that it’s difficult to escape the tracking ability of the supercookie.
How and why do ISPs cooperate with authorities?
Besides marketing companies, ISPs can also be compelled to hand over data about large sets of users to law enforcement authorities. This is usually not for any cash incentives, but as a matter of aiding an investigation.
When ISPs reveal customer browsing history, data and activities like clicks, purchases and searches, these are usually distributed to marketing companies as a very rough sketch of an individual. In other words, they might not have an individual users specific name but they have enough demographic markers that the marketing company can target users, based on these demographic stats. This could be a query like men between the ages of 45 and 55 who like sports.
However, things get more tricky and problematic, possibly even against the basic human rights of individuals when governments get their hands on this kind of information. Essentially, this turns into surveillance, where the government, under the pretext of aiding federal or national investigations, can use this identifying data to create trumped up legal cases, charges and issues against a particular individual.
Now, some cases of tracking and illegality are justified: Countries usually have their own policies about what constitutes illegal downloading, distribution and theft of intellectual property and media. They may be wanting to crack down on this kind of IP theft and make sure that you’re not using BitTorrent, for example, to listen to a soundtrack you didn’t pay for.
But there is an increasing number of countries under the grip of nationalistic or populist rhetoric, and many other countries are still afraid for their citizens own safety under the threat of terror attacks.
In light of this global reality, private, digital data can be used to unfairly target individuals in a particular ethnic, social or even sexual orientation group — in other words, protected classes — track their behavior, make unfair assumptions about who they are and then use this information as the basis for an otherwise illegal arrest and detention.
Who does this affect?
It’s not just regular individuals who can be targeted. There are many ethnic communities or minorities that can be targeted, unfairly, using this tracking policy. Think of members of the LGBTQ community in Russia or the black and Muslim communities in the United States and you’ll understand that these groups are under increased threat of domestic surveillance.
Journalists are a great example of those who professionally and consistently speak out against current ruling parties — a risk that comes at a price of increased scrutiny and possible bias. Governments may not like having their illegalities or inconsistencies pointed out and can use this seizure of personal information to use against the journalist. They can also track the journalists work (since so much research is done online these days) and use this knowledge to stop the journalists progress on the quest for greater information or transparency.
There are also individuals known as whistleblowers who, at great personal risk, expose important documents, often classified, for public viewing and consumption.
This greatly affects the power of current governmental regimes, especially where the structure of democracy is present. In other words, if something bad comes to light on a current party, and citizens can vote to get rid of corrupt officials, it’s in the government’s interest to put a stop to these whistleblowers And they can often use data, either to mitigate and track these individuals actions and intentions or manipulate the data to give them cause to arrest the whistleblower.
If it sounds like there’s an All-Seeing or All-Knowing eye in the sky, rest assured that there are ways around this sort of surveillance. One of the most popular is to use VPNs or virtual private networks. VPNs give individual users an encrypted connection with which to connect to the Internet and the best part is that your data cannot be tracked, logged, stored or even seen by your ISP.
However, there’s a word of caution when using even this form of ensuring privacy: your online activities are still governed by the laws of the land you’re operating in. Just because you’re ensuring your privacy doesn’t mean you can’t be legally arrested for participating in unlawful online activity.
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