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Federal Regulation Changes Spur Online Privacy Concerns: What You Need to Know

By Noell Saunders

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are experiencing a surge in interest after a set of federal regulations meant to stop internet service providers (ISPs) from selling and collecting data from customers without permission was recently overturned by Congress.

Hongyi Wu, director of Old Dominion University's Center for Cybersecurity Education and Research, adds that the implications behind dismantling these regulations could further open the door to an issue that online users have feared for decades.

"The overturning of the internet privacy protection rule means that ISPs can sell such data more freely. For instance, they can sell a customer's online web-browsing history to an advertising company," he said.

Virtual private networks stop the prying eyes of internet service providers while protecting its customers' data. They serve as a middleman between devices and the websites online users visit in order to conceal identities and keep personal information from being tracked. But a VPN is far from a perfect solution, Wu says.

"Some VPNs have security flaws and can be untrustworthy. Also, some websites will not allow you to browse until you turn the VPN off," he said. "Moreover, an ISP has more leverage than a website. It may still gather useful information even when a VPN is used."

The depth of the privacy issue's impact is hard to pinpoint. It depends on the size of the market for the data gathered by internet service providers.

"We have seen advertisements pushed to web browsers, according to our web-browsing history," Wu said. "If it is highly lucrative, we will see more and more private data being sold to third party companies."

The tradeoff falls between usability and security. If privacy and security is over-weighted, it will hurt usability. On the other hand, if privacy and security is not properly addressed, Wu said it leads to problems that may have a negative impact on customers who will therefore stay away from products and services like VPNs.

"The main question is how many people really care about their privacy being revealed by their internet traffic? We will probably see other similar decisions in the future, until online users start strongly voicing their opinions against inappropriate use of their private data," he said.

Wu's recommendations to protect privacy:

  • Use a trustworthy VPN (i.e. the ones provided by your work organization or well-known sites on the internet)
  • Browse secure websites when personal information is used. (i.e. banking or shopping websites)
  • Talk to your provider (Consumers can try to "opt out" of having their data collected by their ISP)

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