What If That Company Helping You Shield Your Online Activity Allegedly Sells that Data to Advertisers?


People are glued to their internet-connected devices from the moment they wake up until they fall asleep.  Filipinos and Brazilians spend the most time using the internet (5.2 hours per day on average), according to a World Bank report. Spending so much time surfing the web leaves a digital fingerprint that can paint a vivid picture of consumers’ lives. Keeping that online history information truly private is very hard if not impossible.

For consumers and companies that want to hide their internet activities, allow remote access, and bolster online privacy, there are a few privacy-enhancing options available, including virtual private networks (VPNs), Tor, and proxy servers. Steve Malone, director of product management at email security company Mimecast in London, told Bloomberg BNA that VPNs and proxy servers are traditionally used by companies, and aren’t readily available for individuals. Malone said that these alternative methods to connect to the internet can be very useful for organizations to control internet traffic and protect online privacy. 

However, if not configured properly, these alternative methods may easily expose user data, Malone said. Furthermore, a privacy advocacy group alleges that certain companies providing VPN services may actually be tracking, logging, and selling customers’ information. According to a request for investigation filed by the Center for Democracy & Technology, free VPN provider Hotspot Shield promised to protect its users’ privacy by guaranteeing “anonymous browsing,” but intercepted and used internet traffic data to identify user locations and deploy advertisements. CDT asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Hotspot Shield’s actions for alleged unfair and deceptive trade practices. FTC spokeswoman Juliana Gruenwald Henderson confirmed that the FTC has received the complaint, but told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 9 that the commission can’t comment beyond that.

VPNs are also heavily used by Chinese consumers seeking to evade the Great Firewall—the nation’s online filter which limits what users can see. However, the Chinese government recently ordered telecommunications companies to block individuals’ access to VPNs by Feb. 1, 2018. According to Bloomberg News, some businesses are worried that the clampdown on VPNs could be expanded to companies.  

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