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A Senate Vote Is Not the Final Word on Internet Privacy

Two pedestrians use iPhones as they walk in Union Square in San Francisco, California.
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Two pedestrians use iPhones as they walk in Union Square in San Francisco, California.

Those rules meant to protect the privacy of your internet activity that you may have heard about? Never mind.

In a 50-48 vote mostly along party lines on Thursday, the Senate moved to strip consumer privacy rules that had just been created in October. Next week, the House is expected to go along with the Senate measure, and the rule changes would then head to President Trump for his signature.

The move by the Senate means telecommunications carriers can "continue tracking and sharing people's browsing and app activity without asking their permission," Cecilia Kang writes. "An individual's data collected by these companies also does not need to be secured with 'reasonable measures' against hackers."

The rules were supposed to go into effect at the end of this year.

Washington's zeal for privacy protection may have cooled, but that doesn't mean you don't have other means to keep what you do out of other people's hands.

Various types of software can help protect internet traffic from prying eyes. A number of browsers, for example, have "stealth" settings that make it difficult to track a web surfer's activities.

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Other software can make it difficult to pinpoint where that traffic is coming from. Perhaps the best known is Tor. Created and managed by a nonprofit digital privacy group called the Tor Project, it is used by a wide range of people, from activists trying to avoid government censorship or surveillance to people conducting illicit business on the so-called dark web.

There are also a number of apps that can encrypt internet messages. Signal, free software offered by a company called Open Whisper Systems, may be the best known of them.

Another example among many free software packages designed to prevent eavesdropping and hide a user's internet address is the Hotspot Shield software offered by AnchorFree, a company based in Mountain View, Calif.

Hotspot Shield gained popularity among activists during the Arab Spring in 2011 and since then has been widely used amid unrest in Turkey, Brazil and — since the presidential election in November — the United States. Well over 500 million copies of the software have been downloaded around the world, the company says.