Privacy Overturned: Your Browser History Could Be Sold

The world is engrossed in watching the drama in Washington over the newly failed Obamacare repeal, President Donald Trump’s accusations of illegal wiretapping by his predecessor, and the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Amid this three-ring circus, you might wonder what could be slipping through the cracks. Unfortunately, it does appear that a lot of “small stuff” is slipping under the radar… but could have huge implications later on.

Weeks ago, the Republican-sponsored bill HR 1313 made it out of committee. Since this health-related bill was not part of the GOP’s Obamacare replacement proposal, and would require no government funding, it generated relatively little attention. However, this bill should alarm all citizens: It would allow your employer to see the results of any DNA tests conducted as part of “workplace wellness” programs… and penalize workers who opted out of such programs by subjecting them to higher health insurance premiums. 

Basically, you have to choose between letting your employer discover that you are predisposed to certain diseases or disorders, possibly jeopardizing your future employment, or maintaining your privacy but paying higher costs for your usual benefits. And, of course, you may also be jeopardizing your future employment by opting out of the workplace wellness program, for your boss may wonder if you are opting out to hide the fact that you have _____________.  It’s lose-lose for American workers.

Perhaps just as alarming as HR 1313 is another Republican bill: Several Senators want to allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to sell your Internet browsing history to third parties. Currently, only websites you visit and use, such as Facebook, can do this. Your ISP, however, collects all the data on where you browse. Trump’s new FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, argues that limits on consumer information sharing by ISPs, but not sites like Facebook, was bad for consumers because it was “confusing.”

To protect citizens from being “confused” about whether or not their data is protected, the GOP has apparently decided to strip out all privacy protections. No more confusion… because none of your data is protected. If this bill passes, anything you type into any Internet browser could be collected by your ISP and sold to marketers.

Some Democrats are decrying the bill because many consumers have no choice of ISP provider; many areas have monopolies in place. These consumers have no option to shop around for an ISP that pledges to protect privacy, assuming that any will. If consumers, especially in rural areas, wish to use the Internet at all, they must be willing to let their data be collected and sold.

It wouldn’t take long for ISPs and marketers to build comprehensive, elaborate, and intimate profiles of all citizens. Everything you enter into your browser, from medical information to queries about personal struggles, could be held against you.  Using today’s tremendous computing power, corporations could develop relatively accurate psychological profiles of individual consumers.  Although Internet users’ information would initially be used to target advertising, where does the slippery slope end?Your browser reveals where you shop, travel, send your children to school, and which restaurants you frequent.  It also reveals your marital status, sexual proclivities, and lots of things that are not safe for work (NSFW).  Who could get their hands on this data if ISPs begin selling it?  Could citizens ever be targeted for blackmail after ne’er-do-wells got access to their entire browser histories?

Any time you reduce privacy protections, you increase the risk for crimes like blackmail, hacking, and identity theft.  Ironically, the Republican Party is supposed to be ardently against privacy violations and routinely decries “big government.”  It turns out that privacy violations are acceptable to the GOP as long as the violator is a corporation and not a government bureaucrat.

Even if we can eliminate the risk of our browser histories being used against us, we still suffer from advertisers, blogs, and political groups using our ISP-provided Internet habits to further entrench us in “bubbles.”  Already, social media has furthered political divisiveness in the United States by allowing people to tailor their news and social feeds to only feature material with which they agree.  Advertisers could further use ISP-provided data to perfect the “bubbles” surrounding consumers, narrowing their digital worlds…and minds.

In terms of capitalism and economic competition, two key pillars of Republican conservatism, the browser-sharing bill is actually a bust rather than a boon.  Letting ISPs sell browsers’ data will advantage existing large corporations over newer, smaller start-ups.  Fortune 500 companies have the resources to buy up digital data on millions of consumers, allowing them to “lock in” countless Internet users as captive customers by dominating their online worlds.

Entrepreneurs and startups, by contrast, will be locked out of this competition because they cannot afford to buy this ISP-provided data or compete with the omnipresent Internet ads of established rivals.  Small businesses and local companies will struggle against an Internet dominated by national chains, many of which may quickly make deals with ISPs to provide constant streams of data.  The Internet will become a landscape ruled by the oligopolists. 

So much for competition!

Combine the browser-sharing with an erosion of net neutrality, and you get an Internet used as a tool of social control and captive profiteering by the largest corporations.  In a dystopian scenario, the United States of 2024 could be a society where your Internet browser only tells you what your provider and its corporate allies want you to know…while delivering to them the most intimate details of your life to be used against you if ever needed. 

It sounds like something out of a movie, but the technology currently exists. You should be wary.

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