Congress Votes to Invade Privacy

Russell Jaffe, Columnist

In a frightening shift toward the dystopian, Congress recently voted to kill vital protections for internet privacy, with President Donald Trump officially approving the bill Monday. These protections, approved at the end of Obama’s term but not yet enacted, would have been the only line of defense against those who wished to keep their personal information classified. Now, internet providers will not need our consent before collecting and sharing our data, including browsing histories, geo-locations and even the contents of our online identities. This data will be sold in aggregate to advertisers, who will use it to target ads more specifically to internet users. This effectively puts our personal information up for sale without even granting us the courtesy of revealing where or when it has been sold. The repeal also removes the requirement for internet providers to institute safeguards against hackers and thieves.  

Congressional Republicans reassure us that this repeal isn’t so bad, with some, like Texas Representative Michael Burgess of Texas, describing the privacy protections as “duplicative regulations.” After all, they claim, the world’s data was already an open book for organizations like the National Security Agency. Now, however, our personal information is open to everyone, and Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, noted that with the repeal, “Americans will never be safe online from having their most personal details stealthily scrutinized and sold to the highest bidder.” For the first time in history, malicious hackers will no longer need to work in the shadows to infiltrate our private lives. Instead, in our new Orwellian state, Big Brother can be anyone willing to pay. What happened to the right to privacy that this country once claimed to believe in? If the post office isn’t allowed to sell scanned copies of our letters, why are our emails being placed on the market? If breaking into a house is considered burglary, why is breaking into a laptop any different?

The repeal is a violation of our most basic rights. Privacy is not important because we necessarily have something to hide, but because it allows us to be whoever we are when nobody is watching. In the words of Edward Snowden, “privacy is the right to a free mind.” On a more ominous note, since our government — which exists to protect our rights — has decided to betray our trust and erase our privacy instead, what is to stop it from doing the same to any other of our rights?

In the wake of this legislation, there are several things you can do to protect your privacy online. First and most importantly, don’t make yourself an easy target. A popular approach is to encrypt your connection to the internet with a virtual private network, or VPN. Countless types of VPNs are available online. Some are free while others require periodic fees. You can also download the free Tor browser, which was endorsed by Edward Snowden and helps conceal both your location and usage from networking surveillance and traffic analysis.

Cell phones are a little trickier, given that these are essentially tracking devices with live cameras that we carry around. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent them from transmitting information such as your location, the security of messaging can be increased through free apps like Signal or TextSecure. A similar app called Redphone was actually classified as a “threat” to surveillance by the NSA. These apps protect texts and phone calls from being intercepted by third parties, making it much more difficult for anyone to eavesdrop on your conversations without permission.

Sadly, however, there is no protection that is completely immune. Even with the best encryption, it’s downright foolish to believe that we still have privacy. Our data will be bought and sold without our consent. But we don’t have to make it easy for them.