Congress just voted to slash internet privacy rules and to give explicit blessing to internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T to collect and sell the details of your online activity to the highest bidder.
While I’m sure some of you have already stopped reading to go clear your browser history of porn and weed brownie recipes, unfortunately that won’t help you, because unless you’re running a VPN, your ISP already has that information stored.
By gutting the FCC’s privacy protections before they even went into effect, Congress is allowing the companies that connect us to the internet to constantly monitor, store, and sell our sensitive personal information to advertisers, data brokers, and very likely the government.
Even creepier, without these rules, your internet provider can install undetectable, undeletable software on your phone to track your activity in real-time, inject advertisements into your web browsing and show them on websites where you normally wouldn’t see ads, and undermine the basic encryption technology that keeps all of us secure as we use the internet.
In fact, just days after Congress’ move to trash privacy protections, Verizon announced a plan to install spyware on every android device using its network.
Your ISP knows more about you than your roommates or even your family. They know what kind of underwear you buy—and which kind you thought about buying but didn’t. They know what videos you watch. They know how much money you make. Your mobile carrier knows your real-time location at almost all times. They may even know how many times a day you go to the bathroom.
By collecting and storing this information in order to turn a profit, telecom companies are creating a vast trove of highly sensitive data that makes all of us more vulnerable to hackers, identity thieves, and abusive surveillance by law enforcement.
Everyone should be worried about what this means for their ability to use the Internet safely. And everyone should be taking basic steps to protect themselves.
But some of us have more at risk than others. For members of my LGBTQ community, for example, the risks associated with having the details of our online activity leak can be far greater.
For many of us, privacy is not a luxury, it’s a matter of life and death.
Many LGBTQ people could be fired from their job, kicked out of their house, or face a violent attack if their browsing history or other sensitive data fell into the wrong hands. Domestic violence survivors, sex workers, people of color, and low income folks are also far more vulnerable to the worst potential impacts of privacy violations.
Without the FCC’s broadband privacy rules, there’s absolutely nothing to prevent ISPs from selling our browsing history to hate groups who could use it to launch targeted harassment campaigns through online ads or other means.
The vote in Congress is disturbing, but it’s just the latest attack on our basic right to safety and security. What matters most is what we do now.
We need to fight back, and build a movement with real political power that can hold corporations and the government accountable, put fear in their hearts, and demand that they leave our internet freedom and privacy alone.
But in the meantime, we need to start actively protecting ourselves and each other. Apathy is no longer an option. Even the most technologically inept among us can start taking simple steps that make it exponentially harder for your ISP—or anyone else—to spy on you, your friends, and your family.
As some of you know, I host a semi-monthly radical queer dance party in Boston called Break the Chains. At the next two events, on May 5th and June 3rd, we’ll be kicking off the party with a Digital Security Training focused on helping people from marginalized communities secure their phones and computers.
Now more than ever, we know we can’t depend on the government to keep us safe. It’s time to defend ourselves.
Evan Greer is a transgender activist, musician, and parent based in Boston. She’s the campaign director of Fight for the Future, and writes regularly for The Guardian, Newsweek, and Huffington post. Follow her on Twitter @evan_greer
Break the Chains + Digital Security Training
Fri, May 5th, 5pm – 10pm at Make Shift Boston
Featuring: Taina Asili y La Banda Rebelde
Break the Chains + Digital Security Training
Sat, June 3rd, 5pm – 10pm at Make Shift Boston
Featuring: The Shondes