Privacy

You can’t buy the browsing history of Congress

Campaigns fundraising to prove a privacy point are clever but misguided

Privacy

You can’t buy the browsing history of Congress

Campaigns fundraising to prove a privacy point are clever but misguided
Privacy

You can’t buy the browsing history of Congress

Campaigns fundraising to prove a privacy point are clever but misguided

Thanks to Congress, ISPs can sell your browsing history without asking your permission first — a fact that has led to many people chucking their cash at crowdfunding campaigns to buy up the web history of lawmakers who voted to overturn the recent privacy regulations preventing this.

There's a problem: As admirable as such activism is, they're not going to be able to buy Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell's browsing habits.

There's a pair of such crowdfunding efforts — one by actor Misha Collins and another by activist Adam McElhaney, who's hoping to make a searchable database of Congressional browsing. Between them, they've raised more than $100,000.

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However, while the repeal means ISPs will be able to customize ads, similar to how Google and Facebook already do, that doesn't mean they'll be able, let alone willing, to sell a specific individual's browsing habits.

“It's certainly possible to isolate a subscriber's usage information, if a carrier was willing to participate," said Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic, one of several smaller ISPs that argued against the repeal in an open letter. “This would be similar to a lawful intercept or wiretap, which carriers must accommodate today.” But they do so for law-enforcement authorities, not advertisers. Instead, the repeal means ISPs will help target advertising — at a cost — based on what they know about you, from sites you've previously visited, where you live, and so on.

Even if ISPs could narrow down a specific person's data, there’s no good reason why they would — if you were Verizon or Comcast, would you hand over data on half of Congress to a crowdfunding campaign? “In addition... an ISP would have to agree to work with someone to sell them data (just like any other business agreement),” noted Brett Woollum, CEO and founder of another smaller ISP, Tekify. “Just because someone wants the data doesn't mean they have a right to buy it from an ISP. Therefore, I would speculate that the campaign… and others similar to this, wouldn't likely be very successful.”

Even if you could buy a Congressperson's data, there's certainly ethical reasons why it shouldn't be published, notably that browsing history isn't tied to a person but an IP address. "Note that this would likely be the entire household, not just one end-user, so that's one wrinkle," said Jasper, though mobile carriers would be able to target a specific device.

Even if ISPs could narrow down a specific person’s data, there’s no good reason why they would

That “wrinkle” would catch out everyone a politician lives with — including children, a fact noted by Collins' campaign, which said it wasn't going to “doxx” people by releasing their addresses or data on their families. Of course, the politicians who voted for the change didn't worry about selling everyone else's children out, but if you're willing to share the same lack of ethics as the people who voted against privacy in Congress, among all the other crap they do, you should take a hard look at yourself, buddy.

The crowdfunded campaigns aren't necessarily a waste — awareness is genuinely useful in such cases and the money raised could be put to good purpose. “It's a really good statement and great way for consumers to show with real dollars that they care about this issue,” said Jasper. “But it is not realistic that a carrier will agree to sell the usage information for a politician to an activist for any amount of money. So, I'm hopeful that Adam McElhaney will in fact donate the funds to an organisation that works to protect end-user privacy, for example the EFF.”

McElhaney wasn't available to comment — he was shifting his site to a more robust hosting platform after heavy demand — but said on the crowdfunding plan that people have asked how the money will be used or suggested it was all a scam. “I am not,” he said. “I don't have all the answers to a lot of questions right now. But I'm working with people who are assisting me in developing a fully fledged plan. I do hope that if you are skeptical, you'll stay with me and watch.”

What can you do in the meantime? Find a solid VPN, though that's easier said than done and doesn't address all the issues; chuck your money at the Fight for the Future, EFF or ACLU, which are at the ready to battle digital privacy invasions; or switch to a different ISP you trust, though an alternative may not operate in your neighborhood.

Woollum said the longer term solution is more competition in the broadband market, something the government could encourage by reducing the barriers to entry and simplifying setup processes. “Competition would have the effect of giving customers the option to opt out of one ISP's poor policies (including data collection) and opt into another ISP who has better policies,” he noted, stressing that his own Tekify doesn't mess with user data. “Small ISPs like ours can alleviate this, but small ISPs only serve a small portion of our nation's population.”