In 2016 the company was forced to pay the FCC $1.35 million for modifying wireless packets to track users around the internet. Verizon not only initially refused to offer users any way to opt-out of this covert tracking, it spent more than two years doing so before even bothering to inform the public it was happening.
For years, Verizon allowed a third party to use undeletable cookies to track its customers’ web-browsing habits. It also helped dismantle state and federal consumer privacy protections, ensuring that government can’t hold companies accountable for flimsy privacy standards and empty promises.
And that’s where much of the problem really originates. Thanks to barely meaningful U.S. privacy rules, your ISP already has an absolute ocean of data on you, much of it collected whether you utilize a VPN or not. And thanks to cash-compromised lawmakers and terrible tech policy (from neutering said privacy rules to killing net neutrality), companies like Verizon are helping to effectively break the internet, placing the onus on consumers to somehow navigate a minefield of apathy and rampant data collection.
It’s now seemingly impossible to go more than a week without seeing another major privacy scandal, whether it’s a company like LocationSmart leaking the private wireless location data of a massive chunk of North America, or a political data firm like Deep Root Analytics leaving the voting data of millions of Americans openly accessible on a public-facing server. In many instances, government appears less interested than ever in actually protecting consumers and holding companies accountable for such violations, as last year’s government assault on FCC broadband privacy protections should make abundantly clear.
In response, worried consumers are increasingly flocking to VPNs in a bid to protect their private data while browsing online. Said fear has provided a wonderful marketing opportunity for VPN providers, some of which, like Private Internet Access, bought full page ads last year naming and shaming senators that sold you out on privacy. But a VPN isn’t some kind of magic bullet, and our collective privacy woes go far deeper than such tools can address. Sure, a VPN may help you dodge the watchful eye of nosy governments or a coffee shop packet sniffer, but you’re still leaving a data trail on the servers of the VPN itself. Often VPN provider claims that they won’t retain user logs are proven to be false, and ferreting out which company is actually protecting your data can often border on the impossible. Quite often, a VPN provider may turn out to be little more than a scam. Other times they’re so poorly configured and run you would have been more secure not using the service at all. We’ve noted repeatedly how rising privacy worries have resulted in a notable rise in this kind of fraud as scammers try to cash in on consumer concern, creating an ouroboros of dysfunction. The fear has also resulted in a rise in VPN offerings from more mainstream names that similarly shouldn’t be inherently trusted. And ironically, many of these offerings are coming from companies that helped build our long, dark privacy nightmare in the first place.
Facebook’s VPN Onavo, for example, has been widely and correctly ridiculed as a data-hoovering application dressed up as a security tool. Giant ISPs are also trying to jump into the VPN game despite several decades’ worth of bad behavior on the privacy front, ironically cashing in on the rising interest in VPNs their own bad behavior helped create. There’s a certain irony in users running to the same ISPs for protection that helped build our current privacy mess in the first place. And while VPNs can provide adequate privacy while at your favorite coffee shop, they’re not a magic bullet for a deeper dysfunction companies like Verizon helped cement.