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FCC Privacy Rule Repeal Will Have Widespread Security Implications

Concerns over the action are sending VPN sales soaring, some vendors say.

The Trump administration's move to repeal a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule that would have prevented ISPs from selling customer data to third parties has widespread security implications for users and organizations, industry experts warned this week.

The Obama-era FCC rule was to have gone into effect later this year. It would have prevented Internet service providers from collecting and selling data such as a customer's Web browsing history, location data, and other data related to the user's online activities without explicit permission.

The White House, FCC chairman Ajit Pai, and others wanted the bill repealed on the grounds that it unfairly favored one set of companies on the Internet over another. The main argument was that the bill would have restricted carriers including AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast from collecting and selling data on a user's online activities, even as Internet giants such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter were free to do so.

In a statement following President Trump's signing of an executive order formally repealing the FCC rule Monday, Pai said what is needed now are "consistent and comprehensive" rules for protecting consumer data, that apply to all players equally.

"Those flawed privacy rules, which never went into effect, were designed to benefit one group of favored companies, not online consumers," Pai said. Going forward, the FCC will work with the Federal Trade Commission on efforts to police the privacy practices of ISPs equally, he said.

The repeal has triggered widespread security concerns. One of the biggest has to do with the fact that ISPs now can collect and retain a vast amount of private customer data, including browsing habits, geolocation data, and financial and health information.

New America's Open Technology Institute lists others categories of customer information that ISPs would be able to collect and sell as a result of the repeal, including text messaging history, video-on-demand history, and history of visits to an addiction forum or an online gambling site.

"ISPs are clear to warehouse sensitive Internet use data for all users on their networks in order to monetize it," says Scott Petry, CEO of Authentic8. Unlike a social media site or a shopping site collecting data on a single user, ISPs have the ability to collect and warehouse all data pertaining to an individual's digital identity and activities.

"The potential for expanded surveillance is scary enough, but combine that with the fact that the data is in a single location means it will be very attractive to hackers," Petry says. "ISPs don't have a particularly good track record of protecting data." 

Enterprises should be equally as worried as consumers, adds David Gorodyansky, founder and CEO of VPN maker AnchorFree. Data thieves and foreign governments will now have an easier time buying data that can be used to track employees online and keep tabs on an organization's online activities, Gorodyansky says.

[Check out the two-day Dark Reading Cybersecurity Crash Course at Interop ITX, May 15 & 16, where Dark Reading editors and some of the industry's top cybersecurity experts will share the latest data security trends and best practices.]

The FCC rule repeal also could have an impact on companies that handle personal data that belongs to EU residents. The EU's General Data Protection Regulation is set to go into effect next year and requires all organizations that handle EU customer data to commit to stringent data handling requirements. The rule was put in place to protect EU user privacy following Edward Snowden's revelations about the U.S. government's ability to access customer data stored by US cloud companies.

"The biggest concern for US companies and ISPs will be the reaction of the EU under the new GDPR regulation," says Tom Kellermann, CEO of Strategic Cyber Ventures. "Enterprises must ensure that they deploy technologies that improve the privacy and cybersecurity for the benefit of their constituencies."

Concerns over the privacy and security implications of the FCC rule repeal appear to be driving surging interest in VPN technologies. The end-to-end encryption offered by VPN tunnels can make it hard for ISPs to track little more than a user's IP address.

AnchorFree's Gorodyansky says that the company has seen US installations of its iOS VPN technology surge 27% between February and March this year, from a shade over 653,000 to around 817,400. The company's VPN installations in March 2017 were more than five times the 150,347 installations from last March.

Another VPN vendor, Panama-based NordVPN, this week too claimed it had seen a 200% increase in inquiries from US-based users in just the past week.

In addition to VPNs, consumers can also use encryption, such as PGP, to make it harder for ISPs to track them, Gorodyansky says. Turning off location data is helpful as well. "To be really anonymous, consumers can disable JavaScript," he adds.

Browser extensions are available that let users manage which domains have permission to run JavaScript in the browser, so they can enable JavaScript only for those websites they trust.

"Consumers should know what their browser is disclosing," Gorodyansky says. Tools such as BrowserLeaks.com are available that give users the ability to see all the data being collected and shared by their browsers, he says.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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