I just returned from a week in Uruguay, where I was master of ceremonies for our Offshore Investment Summit. Normally I would write an article about my visit to that lovely country, but today I need to focus on a serious threat to your privacy.

Last week, congressional Republicans voted to repeal a Federal Communications Commission rule that required Internet service providers (ISPs) to obtain your consent before selling your online browsing history to a third party.

Even if you use your Web browser in secure mode, delete all your cookies and use the apps I recommend to secure your Internet privacy, your ISP will know which websites you have visited for as long as you have been a customer.

Today I’m going to offer a solution to this travesty that works for me … and will work for you too.

You don’t want your browsing history to be public knowledge. Even if your Internet usage is as pure as the driven snow, it can still be used to do you serious harm. Given that most of us now use the Internet for everything important in our lives — financial, medical and legal issues, for example — the potential for a third party to blackmail or threaten you is always there.

With this vote, congressional Republicans have essentially told ISPs such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T that they don’t care. It’s OK with them if your ISP chooses to sell this intensely private information without your knowledge or consent.

The GOP argument is that since Web-based services such as Facebook and Google can sell information that they learn from your use of their sites, ISPs should be able to do the same. They argue that restricting ISPs in this regard interferes with their ability to compete with these other firms.

To put it mildly: This is absolute rubbish.

Your choice to use Facebook, Google or any other Web-based company’s products is entirely voluntary. An ISP, on the other hand, is an unavoidable gateway to the Internet itself. You have to have an ISP if you want to use the Internet, period. So the notion that the types of information that you give voluntarily to Facebook by choosing to use its services have exactly the same status as your browsing history with your ISP is fundamentally misleading.

To add insult to injury, the highly concentrated state of the U.S. broadband market means that many of us have no choice of ISP. We are forced to use the one that’s available where we live. By contrast, if you don’t like the fact that Google may sell your search history, you can always use an alternate search engine, such as DuckDuckGo, that doesn’t do that.

Fighting Back

One way to avoid ISP tracking is to use the Tor browser. Tor is a decentralized system run by volunteers that masks your physical location and all your activity on the Internet. When you use Tor, your activity appears to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. Unfortunately, it can be complicated to use — and it can even bring you to the attention of law enforcement officials, who tend to assume that anybody who uses it is doing something illegal.

The other solution to this problem is to use what’s known as a virtual private network, or VPN.

These are subscription-based services that encrypt your Internet activity and route it through multiple servers so that, as with Tor, it appears to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. A VPN is a set of instructions loaded into the software that connects to the Internet that tells your computer, phone or tablet to route all Internet activity through a secure network.

Unlike Tor, however, VPNs are typically run through centralized servers rather than through a peer-to-peer network. That means companies that provide VPN services could theoretically track you. But good VPN providers don’t do that because they compete with other VPNs by offering privacy.

Setting up a VPN typically involves adding a special Web address in the settings that tell your browser where to look up websites when you browse the Internet. If you’re using an Apple or Android phone or tablet, it’s set up as a “profile” for the device.

The VPNs I use install and set themselves up automatically. The whole process is handled by an installation app.

Now, VPNs are not a 100% foolproof solution. As I noted above, VPN companies could conceivably record your browsing history and give it to someone. It is also theoretically possible to reconstruct a person’s identity and location from certain patterns in what appear to be anonymous browsing histories. But this is a complex and expensive thing to do, and for most ordinary folks like us who just want to keep our browsing history private, a VPN should do just fine.

Now, one thing you don’t want to do is use a free VPN service. If it’s free, it’s selling your information to someone — that’s the only way it can make money.

For my Apple devices, I’m currently using a VPN called Cloak. Based on my research and conversation with Internet privacy experts, Cloak appears to be one of the best, safest and easiest to use VPNs available on the Web. It costs about $100 a year and covers up to six individual devices.

On my PC, I use NordVPN. It checks “yes” on all the most important technical criteria for a good VPN service. It’s $69 a year.

It’s clear that the people in charge of our country care more about corporate profits from our private data than they care about our privacy. Until that changes, you need a VPN — today.

Kind regards,

Ted Bauman
Editor, The Bauman Letter

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