How Trump Is Letting Internet Providers Sell Your Data
This week the Trump administration secured its latest victory in it’s mission to overturn Obama era regulations, this time with a rule concerning privacy on the internet. The rule would have made it harder for service providers like AT&T, Verizon and T-mobile from keeping track of what you do online and possibly sell it to third party groups, like credit card companies. The regulation was passed last fall by a then-democratic majority on the Federal Communications Commission, but it hadn’t yet gone into effect. Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter with FiveThirtyEight.com joins us to discuss this latest blow to internet privacy, as well as how researchers in Australia are on the hunt for a rumored creature as elusive as the giant squid, the Tasmanian Tiger.
Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Are you the type of person who likes to browse the internet in incognito mode? Yeah. Do you take full advantage of those privacy settings in your web browser? Well, no matter how careful you think you’re being with your data on the internet, there is one group that knows exactly what you’ve been up to online. And that is your service provider.
This week, President Trump signed a law overturning an Obama-era regulation that would have made it harder for providers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile to keep track of what you do online and sell it to third party groups like credit card companies. The regulation was passed last fall by a then democratic majority on the Federal Communications Commission, but it hadn’t gone into effect yet.
Here to tell us more about these latest development and other selected short subjects in science is Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter with fivethirtyeight.com. She joins us from Minnesota– NPR. NPR in Minneapolis. Welcome back, Maggie.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Hi, how are you?
IRA FLATOW: Nice to talk to you. Let’s get right to it. So our internet service providers, are they taking our data and doing something with it?
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. So you know how Google and Facebook had these targeted ads that are based on what you’ve been searching for, liking on their sites? These rules were designed to prevent your internet service provider from basically joining in that game on a broader scale. So instead of just a website, it would cover everything that you do online. These rules would have banned the internet service providers from sharing or selling information about your health, finances, all the websites you visit– even the embarrassing ones– without explicitly getting your OK first. And that information is valuable to them because they can sell it or they can use it to create profiles of their customer base that they can sell.
All Tech Considered had a really great interview with the CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum, talking about these third party advertising exchanges where people can go in and just purchase info about individuals or groups that they want to sell ads to. And some companies like Comcast have promised that they’re not going to sell your individual data. But that’s just a promise. It’s completely nonbinding.
IRA FLATOW: So what was Congress’s justification then for overturning a rule that would have protected internet user privacy?
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Basically, for Congress, this was about the rule being unfair. Because it was going to apply to internet service providers but Google and Facebook could still do the same thing. They were going to be bound by the requirements. So you had people like Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona framing this as protecting consumers from confusing government regulatory overreach.
Of course, Google and Facebook are both a lot less all-encompassing and they’re easier to leave. A third of all Americans don’t really have any choice in who their ISP is at all.
IRA FLATOW: So when they sell their data, if and when they do that, are they going to give out information about us personally? Or is it basically where we live and things like that without knowing exactly whom we are?
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Now it could be either.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Really? You stopped me in my tracks there.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: So I hope you know what you’ve been looking at.
IRA FLATOW: So All right, let’s talk about it. So we’re not going to get help from the government any time soon. Is there any way that we can hide our data from our service providers?
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. There are a few things that I found that people were recommending. And some of this starts with just really basic stuff like keeping an eye out for the emails and the letters that you get from your internet service provider. Because sometimes, some of those are actually opt-out requests. Like the chance that you’re getting to say please don’t do this, actually.
And there’s also little lowercase i’s on banner ads. And that’s an opt-out option too. So if you see those, that means somebody is collecting data about you and using it to make an ad to target you. And that’s your opt-out option.
You can also use encrypted search engines like DuckDuckGo. And because your ISP isn’t the only one gathering information about you. This is stuff that Google does. This is stuff that Facebook does. This is stuff that lots of websites do.
And finally, there is the virtual private network, which can really mask your location and encrypt what you do online. And it’s good for both privacy and for protecting you from hackers when you do things like use a public Wi-Fi network. There are a couple of ways you can do this. The easy way is by hiring a VPN provider for about $75 a year. And the hard way is setting up your own, which will require you to have a computer at home that’s always on. And either way, you’ve got to remember to turn your VPN on every single time you join a new network.
IRA FLATOW: And on your– same thing with your iPhone or your cell phone, right?
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yep. Yeah, exactly.
IRA FLATOW: I know I’ve been looking at some VPNs. And on our website, we have some links on how to do that at sciencefriday.com/vpn. It will turn stuff on automatically, right? You can have a little switch on your cell phone that will turn the VPN on.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. I’ve seen some of them that do that. And then I’ve seen others where you have to remember to turn it on each time. And it just kind of depends on what program you’re using and whether you’re using a computer or your phone.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And there is a little bit of a trade-off, possibly with speed and bandwidth when you do that? When you use the VPN. So there is something– there’s always a trade-off.
Let’s move on to something else that I want to talk about. Our next story is about the Tasmanian tiger might be extinct. But then again, it might not be. Tell us about that.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: So the Tasmanian tiger looks like a dog but it’s got a pouch like a kangaroo. It’s a marsupial. And the last one died in a zoo in 1936 supposedly.
IRA FLATOW: Uh-huh.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Ah-ha.
IRA FLATOW: You say supposedly.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, there have been these sightings over the course of decades. And some of the sightings, particularly recent ones, have actually been credible enough that it’s starting to get the attention of scientists. And so this team from Australia’s James Cook University is setting up this network of camera traps across Tasmania and all these places where some of these credible sightings have happened, trying to see if maybe we can catch a glimpse of this animal that we thought was dead.
IRA FLATOW: That seems pretty low-tech, right?
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, it kind of is.
IRA FLATOW: Not a big budget involved.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, I don’t know what the budget is for this project. But it is cameras. It’s camera traps. It’s not anything really crazily high-tech, but it’s very scientific in that it’s the kind of thing where you’re doing this really methodical survey of all of these sites via the 50 camera traps you bring with you, right? So it’s not just like standing out, trying to be that person who gets the picture of Bigfoot. It’s moving one segment of land at a time and working your way across the area.
IRA FLATOW: Collecting data can be pretty boring sometimes.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: It can.
IRA FLATOW: But necessary.
MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: But wouldn’t it be amazing to find a Tasmanian tiger?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I’d love to see that. Thank you. Thank you, Maggie. Nice to have you back. Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science reporter with FiveThirtyEight.