“Best wood for a fence.” “Rainbow mermaid Barbie.” “MacBook battery problems.” You can tell a lot about people by what they search for on the internet. Those phrases, for instance, all of which I’ve Googled in the past few hours, could tell you that I’m hoping to spruce up the backyard, that I live with a young kid, and that I might be in the market for a new computer. And soon, that web-surfing history of mine could be available for sale to the highest bidder, thanks to a bill that President Trump signed into law this week. (See Technology.) The new law allows internet providers to sell advertisers our personal data, including the words we search for and the websites we visit, without our permission. Coupled with what internet companies already know about us—where we live, our Social Security numbers, when we watch TV and go online—it’s easier than ever for companies to paint an incredibly detailed portrait of who we are and how we live.
All this wouldn’t be that big of a deal if it just meant a few more annoying ads for laptops and children’s dolls following me around the web—though that’s creepy enough. But no one thinks that’s where this ends. After all, it’s not just advertisers who would pay top dollar for insights into our web habits; so would political parties, insurance companies, and more. What if health insurers want to know if you search for chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer online? Will employers vet job candidates by buying their browsing history? And will public officials or celebrities—or any of us—be open to blackmail if someone purchases access to their secret web proclivities? We’ve now opened the door to that future, and privacy experts say there’s not much we can do to protect our data, save going offline. Perhaps it’s time to Google “off-the-grid properties.”