Why Nothing On Your Computer Is Private Anymore

Is the Net really neutral? I don’t think so. What you need to know about Net Neutrality:

Ok, so there is a growing hysteria about the repeal of Net NeutralityWhat does that even mean?  Well, President Obama pushed through a change to Title II (the Telecommunications Act of 1934/1996) that basically required several key things of telcos, wait for it… subject to the Federal Communications Commission. These changes meant that ISPs could not do certain things:

·       Prioritize traffic by user or destination (called fastlanes)

·       Sell user information without their knowledge (what they are calling browsing history)

·       Discriminate against users

·       Censor sites which did not contain “illegal” content

And so on…Basically, a good thing. Enter the dragon. The ISPs are huge entities and they have a lot of money. They donate a lot of that money to Congress. With the Republican Party in control, guess what, they repealed the Obama era rules because money is far more important than your well being.

So, what does this all mean? Well, not a lot despite the hysteria. At least in the short run, but there are some scary parts too. The Obama era regs had only been in place for about six months when they were repealed and the FCC was still working on what and how to enforce these rules, so it’s not like they changed the first amendment (no matter how much they want to) or something equally awful. To me, the other end of the connection is already and has been selling all of your history for ages. Giants like Google, Amazon, Instagram, they are NOT regulated by the FCC but rather the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC doesn’t impose these kinds of standards on them, so if you use Amazon, they are already selling your browsing history. If you use Google, the same. If you don’t believe me, go on Amazon and search for something you don’t normally buy, let’s say health food. Watch what happens on your Facebook feed. Health food ads. This is all already being done and the FCC is not going to stop it. Using a VPN (If you don’t know how to do that, check out my Web Show, Secure Digital Life on the Securityweekly.com wiki pages.) helps with the ISP part, but it doesn’t do anything to prevent Amazon from tracking you.

So, part of this is just the usual, hysteria… but there are other issues which emerge from this conversation. In China, they have a good citizen score they use. Do good things on the web, and get a better score (Who is to say what those good things actually are?). Get a low score and maybe you can’t get a loan or buy train tickets. So, the greater concern is that a government starts building a big data profile of every user and applying some arbitrary scoring system (Go to Breitbart get a +2; praise Dear Leader, +5; criticize the Congress -50; that kind of thing.) Get a low enough score and maybe you get extra special pat downs at the airport, can’t use the airport at all, or maybe get dragged in for questioning (See Black Mirror; Season 3 Episode 1 for an interesting treatment.). Could Amazon profile you as a “good” or “bad” citizen based on your buying habits?  Probably. How about this: Using your Instagram posts and other social media, we develop a good citizen score and then not only does your score get changed, but your followers area affected as well. Yikes. (Again see Black Mirror.)

So, in the end, the short run is, I think, the usual hysteria. But in the long run, the implications of online privacy are much more frightening. How to protect yourself, well, you can go live in a cabin in the woods with no electricity (Think “The Revenant."), but in the meantime, the Title II Net Neutrality did protect you from one layer of data sales, but it doesn’t protect you from the far end (I don’t really think the Congress understands much of this. Remember when Sen. Stevens called the Internet “a series of tubes”?). We have been giving up our information to the corporate sphere for a long time and they are learning rapidly how to optimize that information. The use of big data algorithms (These are AI programs that examine massive amounts of information continually for patterns.) could easily lead us to the Black Mirror Nosedive world or something far more sinister (Can you say “Skynet Activate”?).

I don’t say this lightly, “I don’t know." If you want to buy curry powder from Amazon, you have to buy it and that means giving up your privacy. Does Alfred and Sargent’s know your shoe size?  I am sure they do, but they have been knowing people’s show sizes since the 19th century and probably selling that information to others. It may be that the era of privacy is leaving us and we will need to adopt a new paradigm. Arthur C. Clarke, one of the great visionaries of sci-fi, wrote a book about the loss of privacy called “The Light of Other Days” about the total loss of privacy and the subsequent changes in society that resulted from that loss. It’s a scary vision to someone from the 21st Century, but then again, a self driving automobile would have gotten you burned at the stake in 16th Century.

In the meantime, guard your data. Use VPNs and anonymize yourself whenever possible. But watch the watchers, the potential for misuse as the paradigm shifts is very frightening. I did three podcasts on Net Neutrality, using TOR VPN, and Net Neutrality again just in the last three weeks.  It’s obviously a serious and scary issue. Do you trust Dear Leader to act in your interest, some people do, not me. In the meantime, if Alfred and Sargent’s wants to send me a free pair of shoes, cool. Enjoy.

More About Doug

Doug White is the Chair of Cybersecurity and Networking programs at Roger Williams University. He has worked in the technology industry for many years and specializes in networking, disaster, forensics, and security. He has been paid to break into buildings, talk tech people out of their usernames and passwords, steal money, and figure out horrible scenarios like “What if a rabid shark swarm was caught up in a tornado while a core meltdown occurred? Could we still watch Netflix?” Doug has a PhD in Computer Information Systems and Quantitative Analysis from the University of Arkansas, is a Certified Computer Examiner, A Cisco Certified Network Administrator, A Certified Information Systems Security Professional, and a licensed private investigator. 


Photo Credits: Doug's photo by Ashley Farney