The controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which passed with a 248-168 vote in the House of Representatives yesterday, April 26, is indicative of the growing deterioration of online privacy that has captured the attention of internet users across the nation. While social media sites such as Facebook have demonstrated support for CISPA, President Obama promised before the House’s decision to veto the bill if it passed.
CISPA would give online businesses and the federal government protection to share cyber threats with one another in attempts to prevent hacking. The bill would allow confidential customer records to be handed over from Internet companies to various branches of the federal government such as the National Security Agency. The Huffington Post reported that Facebook, the most commonly visited website among college students, supports the bill because of the company’s need for timely information about cyber threats to keep the site secure and protect the data of its 845 million users.
But Facebook users aren’t buying it. As of Wednesday, an online petition had received over 800,000 signatures. Opponents of the bill claim that it would allow private companies and federal authorities the legal right to spy on Internet users without a warrant. Privacy and civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have also spoken out against CISPA.
This backlash against CISPA speaks to a broader trend of user efforts to retake control of how their personal information and internet activities are monitored. According to a March Pew Internet poll, most search engine users disapprove of their personal information being collected for search results or for targeted advertising. This sentiment has created tension between online users and the two most frequently visited websites in the world, Google and Facebook, which generate the vast majority of their profits through advertisements.
“I think what is happening is the tools for data collection and analysis are becoming far more sophisticated, and the information can be collected so much more easily,” said Benjamin Kuperman, professor of computer science at Oberlin.
Both Google and Facebook have captured recent news headlines for actions that have left many Internet users feeling frustrated and violated. Earlier this April, federal regulators issued Google a $25,000 fine for impeding an investigation into a data collection operation.
According to the New York Times, during Google’s “Street View Project,” completed in 2010, the company used cars to map city streets from the ground level and in the process employees swept up sensitive personal information from wireless home networks. Google claimed the data collection wasn’t deliberate, but failed to respond to requests for e-mails and other information concerning the employees who were involved.
While Internet privacy disintegrates, Internet users are left searching for ways to better protect their personal information. However, according to the Pew poll, just 38 percent of users are aware of ways to limit website data collection methods. According to John Bucher, director of information technology and chief technology officer at Oberlin, a number of problems can be averted through the use of common sense.
“Never provide personal information if it’s not required for a purchase or product registration,” said Bucher. “And when it’s required, carefully study the web page(s) for potentially fraudulent information. If it’s a legitimate web site, its site name will probably begin with ‘https.’”
Kuperman suggested it may prove beneficial for students to be aware of the “cookies” that are being stored in their web browsers. A cookie is a string of information that the browser includes with every page request. One can adjust the preferences to not allow cookies at all, but according to Kuperman this will disrupt the functionality of most modern websites. Instead, he suggests altering one’s privacy preferences to block “third party” cookies, which will limit the cookies to only those that come from the page that is being directly visited.
As the digital age evolves, many Internet users aren’t surprised to witness increasing threats to their online privacy. Bucher understands the problem as resulting from greater numbers of people using the Internet and also expecting more from it. Even so, the need for online protection may be more pressing today than ever before.
“Everyone who uses the world wide network should be concerned about privacy,” said Bucher. “Everyone needs to be aware of the threat.”