FTC: This Is How Your Internet Service Provider Or Wireless Carrier Can Spy

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A new government report suggests that your ISP is already working on monetizing the fact that you are currently on the PCMag site.

The Federal Trade Commission released a staff report Thursday detailing the privacy practices of six major vendors. The bad news from this investigation, launched by the FTC in 2019, comes in the form of comments in bold:

  • Many ISPs in our study amass large pools of sensitive consumer data.

  • Several ISPs in our study collect and use data in ways that consumers don’t expect and could harm them.

  • Although many ISPs in our study claim to offer choices to consumers, those choices are often illusory.

  • Many ISPs in our study can be at least as intrusive when it comes to privacy as the major ad platforms.

The report relies on submissions from AT&T, Charter, Comcast, Google Fiber, T-Mobile, and Verizon, but does not specify any particular companies when reviewing certain tracking practices and interfaces, which may make it a frustrating read.

For example, which company “has specifically refused to combine consumer data collected through its ISP services with these other services”? As a Verizon Fios customer, I hope this refers to a line in their “Relevant Online Advertising” explicator saying that they “don’t use information about non-Verizon websites you visit” .

But the report is clear that broadband providers, in general, view online advertising as a lucrative sideline that allows them to rank customers in interest groups such as “Gotham Blend” and “Birkenstocks and Beemers.” Against which they can target advertisements and promotions.

Most sites use encryption to prevent your ISP and other outside people from seeing the content of a page – Google reports that 91% of pages loaded in Chrome for Windows are encrypted – but their domain names can still reveal your interests. (A reference at the bottom of the page to an ISP that supports encrypted domain name lookups i.e. Comcast indicates what customers can do to stop this i.e. use encrypted DNS like 1.1 .1.1 from Cloudflare.)

Many ISPs can amass additional customer data from additional services such as television and home security, the report warns. And he berates the industry for making so many of its privacy interfaces a series of dark models that invite people to make the wrong choices.

For example, he quotes an unnamed company’s ‘Don’t sell my personal information’ setting to present this with an opt-out toggle: “It’s not clear whether the consumer should turn off the setting to disallow the sale, or activate it to activate “Do not sell”.

It also quotes what looks like T-Mobile’s privacy interface, except the description suggests that the process involves a lot more clicks than the app on my phone requires. (Tap “More,” then tap “Advertising & Analytics.”)

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The report compares all of that surveillance to major social media tracking, but leaves out one way ISPs do worse: Facebook and Google at least allow you to monitor and change the behavioral profiles they’ve built about you.

This document does not make policy recommendations, but FTC President Lina Khan shared hers in a statement, saying that “the Federal Communications Commission has the clearest legal authority and expertise to fully supervise Internet service providers “.

The FCC’s previous attempt in this direction came to an end when Republicans in Congress quickly passed a bill in early 2017 rescinding its pending broadband privacy rules. Then FCC Chairman Ajit Pai applauded President Trump as he signed it, saying the privacy rules were “designed to benefit a select group of businesses, not online consumers.”

Weeks later, Pai decided to remove the 2015 net neutrality rules that provided a legal basis for those regulations, work the FCC completed in December of that year.

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