ISPs Tracked Customers Without Consent

Dennis Faas's picture

Last fall, several communications companies reportedly conducted trials, in some cases lasting up to 6 months, of network-based technology designed to track a customer's Internet actions, attempting to amass refined data on web-surfer habits that may be sold at premium rates to advertisers.

Cable One's 'trial' affected about 700,000 customers. Bresnan Communications conducted a similar 'trial' that was limited to about 6,000 broadband customers in Billings, Montana from April 1 to June 26, 2008. Knology tested it on about 230,000 of their customers from January until July 2008. WideOpenWest tested this technology on 330,000 high-speed Internet customers from March until early July 2008. CenturyTel tested about 20,000 high-speed data customers.

In fact, out of 32 Internet-related companies, Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision, Cox and Insight were among the minority who did not engage in the illicit customer monitoring.

Cable One insisted they had complied with privacy laws and gave customers appropriate notice when they signed up for the service, but did not allow its customers to opt out of the trial "because doing so would stifle our ability to test new technologies that have the potential to offer significant benefits to our customers."

Cable One is owned by the Washington Post Co. It's trial was conducted to determine whether customers would benefit from 'more relevant advertising,' which could perhaps help "subsidize users' Internet access or other services and applications."

Cable One was approached by an unidentified third party vendor about a new technology that replaces existing online advertisements with advertisements of greater relevance to users based on data collected anonymously. Although the third party is unidentified by name, its description is similar to deep-packet inspection (DPI) technology developed by NebuAd.

DPI technology goes a lot farther than the data web sites collect when customers visit. DPI allows broadband network owners to collect all data sent across their networks, including the content in email and instant messages, and raises a lot of security concerns. Consumers continue paying potentially high prices -- in many cases without their knowledge -- but can defend their privacy with encryption software, which DPI technology cannot penetrate.

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