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What does “Private” really mean?

Internet privacy in the new age of deregulation

When it comes to internet privacy, there are only two schools of thought: the naive approach, thinking that your data is private and secure, and the approach the rest of us take, thinking that it’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland of fear and insecurity.

So, with that, how does the new ruling this past month regarding internet privacy, or the lack thereof, impact companies and private citizens? Hold on to your hats because this is about to get legal.

To begin, we must first understand the legalities of FCC rules. Simply put, when following FCC rules, internet service providers must obtain customer permission in advance to use or share highly sensitive information. This information continues to include everything from precise location, financial and health information, social security numbers, web browsing history, app usage, and the contents of communications.

Now, before continuing with this article, go back, and read that sentence again, maybe even twice to let it truly sink in for a moment. That’s right, for those of you who have opted-in—or more accurately, for those of you who have never read your ISP agreement and just clicked “Agree” in haste—this is the information that you are sharing with a lot of companies. And, not to be hyperbolic, I firmly stand by my statement that it’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland of fear and insecurity.

But that’s not where this ends, or even restarts with the new laws. In fact, ISPs could use less sensitive information, such as email addresses, unless their customers asked them not to, or they opted out. The rules also require ISPs to clearly articulate their respective privacy policies, and to implement so-called industry best practices to secure all collected data.

The million-dollar question becomes, “What’s the projected outcome?” However, the legalities surrounding this new legislation really depend on trusting ISPs to “do the right thing,” whatever that may be. But, as always, legal-speak can be interpreted in many ways—and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In communications released in the past few weeks, ISPs have very carefully worded their statements to be vague and noncommittal—so much so, I feel like they took lessons from me in my college dating years (I hope my wife isn’t reading this).

For instance, Comcast stated that it did not “sell its customers’ individual web browsing history” and had no plans to do so. Following suit, Verizon used similar language in its statement. As for AT&T, it stated that it hadn’t changed its privacy practices and noted that it was still subject to the privacy rules included in the Communications Act. What wasn’t said, was that in all cases the Act’s privacy provisions discuss only telecommunications data such as call location and information published in telephone directories.

So, where does this leave us now? To be honest, I don’t think anyone really knows. Truthfully, the moral to this story is simply one of “Trust No-one” (thanks, Fox Mulder for making me so damn paranoid). But all jokes aside, let’s approach this from a simplified viewpoint. In the new world order of internet data and subsequent tracking, nothing is sacred anymore. The age of due diligence now falls squarely upon our individual shoulders to manage our own proverbial backyards.

A little education around internet security, tools to mitigate risk, and taking a more pragmatic approach to surfing the internet isn’t a bad thing. This new legislation should do nothing more than make us more self-aware, more diligent, and just a little bit smarter.

And remember, the truth is out there—it just costs a little more these days.