What You Need to Know About the Internet Snooping Bill (and How You Can Protect Yourself)Posted: August 2, 2011
What You Need to Know About the (and How You Can Protect Yourself)
On Thursday, the US House of Representatives approved an internet snooping bill that requires internet service providers (ISPs) to keep records of customer activity for a year so police can review them as needed. Here’s what this bill means for you and what you can do about it.
What Is This Internet Snooping Bill, Exactly, and Why Is It Bad?
The lovingly titled Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 (PCFIPA of 2011) requires ISPs to retain customer names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and dynamic IP addresses. It’s a record of your personal information plus the web sites you visit. It’s like handing over a year’s worth of browser history plus the contents of your wallet to the police. The thing is, you’re not really handing it over so much as your ISP is—without your consent.
You might be wondering what this has to do with child pornography and protecting children, as the bill claims to exist for those reasons. The idea is that child pornographers will be easier to catch if these records are available, and that, in turn, will protect children. According to the Denver Post, child pornography cases have been on the rise and there have been over 10,000 arrests since 1996. While the police should be prosecuting child pornographers and consumers, the problem isn’t so out of control that these extreme measures are necessary.
Internet World Stats reports that there are currently 272.1 million Americans connected to the internet. The 10,000 known child pornography consumers make up a tiny fraction of a percent of Americans online. Even if the number of child pornography consumers were as much as 1,000,000, it still wouldn’t make up a single percent. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t want to prosecute them and get them to stop, or that even 10,000 is a small number when it comes to a crime like this, but making a year’s worth of records doesn’t solve the problem.
Consider the browser history of a single person over the course of a year, and then multiply that by 272,100,000. Then try to find 10,000 people in that data that have, at some point during that year, downloaded at least a single piece of child pornography. Finding a needle in a haystack is hard, but it gets to be pretty close to impossible when that haystack is the size of a country. There are too many people not downloading child porn to easily locate an offender and too few policemen to thoroughly look through the information. Like we’ve seen when the RIAA prosecuted music downloaders with little success, you get nowhere going after the consumers. Instead, you have to go after the providers. It’s why police are much more interested in drug dealers than the people who buy from them. You need to cut off the source. But this bill isn’t targeting the source at all. Furthermore, there are already provisions in place (like the Protect Our Children Act of 2008) that give the police a means of collecting information on a potential child pornography consumer.
Essentially, this bill does nothing more than make the browsing histories of approximately 272.1 million Americans readily available to the police. And that information comes with credit card numbers, addresses, and more. It not only encroaches upon personal privacy but is a complete waste of resources.
How You Can Block Snooping ISPs and Protect Your Privacy
It could be worse. One nice feature of the PCFIPA of 2011 bill is that it doesn’t include cellular data, so if you’ve thought about switching to 4G wireless data at home you’ll soon have another reason. That’s not an option for many people, however, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck.
Your best bet is to find yourself a good VPN provider and hook it up to a good VPN tool to encrypt and route all your internet traffic through a third-party that isn’t your ISP. Virtual Private Networks creates secure, encrypted connections between your computer and a server on the internet, then routes all your internet activity through that server. Your ISP would only really be logging the IP address of your VPN server, which doesn’t give them much of your private info.
Tor is one of the easiest ways to browse anonymously online (even if it isn’t perfect). If you’re a Chrome user, you can even create a simple Tor toggle button to use it only when you really need it. By anonymzing you’re browsing, your ISPs won’t have a record of what you’ve been doing. They’ll know you were online, but the details won’t be available to them or the police. Of course, there’s no assurance that any anonymous browsing tool will provide full protection but it’s definitely better than nothing at all.