Posted May 20, 2008 9:57 am by with 14 comments

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Have you ever thought about the enormous amount of data your broadband internet provider could collect from you? The sites you visit, your spending habits, even which products seem to catch you eye.

Well, with online advertising’s $45 billion yearly budget going mostly to the likes of Google, your broadband provider is getting tired of being left out of the party. What’s to stop Charter Communications from monitoring all of your web activity, then selling you targeted ads–or at least selling your browsing habits to the highest bidder?

Fortunately, as CNET explains, there are a whole host of laws in place that prevent broadband service providers from doing just that. But, that’s not stopping them from testing the limits of the law.

The problem for broadband providers is that intercepting customers’ Web browsing, analyzing the protocols to see what’s going on, and reviewing the packets’ contents starts to look a lot like wiretapping. And there are federal and state laws, complete with civil and criminal sanctions, that broadly prohibit wiretapping.

The stakes are high. With behavioral advertising growing in demand, the broadband providers are sitting on a goldmine of data–specifically "deep packet inspection."

Because deep packet inspection can, barring the use of encryption, monitor everything that a customer does online, a broadband provider is in the enviable position of being able to know exactly what each customer is doing. The odds of successful monetization are high. But so are the legal risks.

Are you concerned? Do you think allowing the use of your browsing data will help make for a better web experience? Or, are you in favor of keeping prying eyes out of your web surfing habits?

Drop a comment and let us know.

  • I read some news recently that in UK the Broad Band providers must hold the data for 3 years and turn it other to government agencies if and when asked.

    So I would not discount BB providers spying for government agencies as well.

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  • Hey Andy,

    Great post! Is it spying or guided data mining? I suppose my opinion is that of a tech-geek – this kind of stuff fascinates me. There is no question our surfing habits are being monitored. The real question is how it will be percieved by the end user.

    I’ll admit I was slightly unnerved when >Sympatico linked-up with Microsoft some years back. Imagine the possibilities of melding my ISP’s packet information with the information derived from my PC (System Identification Number, MS License, details about hardware, etc.), MSN/Live searches, or the fact that MSN now hosts my ISP’s webmail?

    The move certainly has made me a little more guarded about signing-out or deleting my browsing cookies/cache before using email, and being prudent about using my webmail and conducting searches. This applies with gmail/Google as well, or downloading any desktop tools that integrate with my browser.

    It might come across as paranoia, or having a false sense of awareness/security, but overall, I feel somewhat at ease when its big players that are combining their resources and ideas on monetizing on behavioural mining because they are already under the intense magnification of scrutiny, and are more likely to be on the radars of the watchdogs.


  • The prospect is scary. Yes if there is any initiative to do something about prevention, count me in.

  • This scares the crap out of me not because ISPs will wheel and deal on the shady side of the market, but because there’s such a growing demand for behavioural advertising, and in a market democracy, market incentives often provide the impetus for legislative review. Basically, I’m worried that this won’t be illegal for much longer.

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  • Think about this … If phone companies are not allowed to “wiretap” on your calls (e.g. to survey what you might discuss … “Oh, there’s a great marketing/product idea – these people are talking all day long about xyz) … If the phone companies can’t do it, then cable companies can’t/shouldn’t either. Only if there’s a WARRANT out for SOMEONE SPECIFIC, then a cable company could jump in and monitor the traffic of a potential offender (i.e., terrorist, sex offender, etc.). Besides that, why not stick people in cafes and malls to hear and see what people are buying. NOT. A real comparison would be the phone companies. They can’t listen in on your conversations legally without a warrant and neither should Internet providers unless they have a warrant for an individual. Of course, that would have to be within countries who respected the rights of their citizens … due process, etc.

  • Just use Tor (The Onion Router) a couple time in week and you’ll break most of such data collection results.

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  • Green Hornet

    Human nature being what it is, everything is for sale — including you and me. What more powerful way to realize societies “Big Brother” dreams and to enable regimes like China to exercise finite control of our every movment — and thought!?

    We love our technology but ignore the price. We pay for what we get and the powers that be love power and control. Total security means total control. How much do you want???

    For myself, I can get along nicely without much “security”.

  • Not sure that any society dreams of achieving the “Big Brother” scenario – that is still a nightmare for most of us (I hope!) except perhaps “the powers that be” – but to suggest this would only be utilized by the likes of China is a bit naive (no offense). The West will be there long before them, IMHO – Democracy is the opiate of the masses.

  • I don’t really mind as long as I am not doing anything fishy.

  • I dont see how they could use this.
    Popping up some advertising while i use google?
    That would be too obvious.
    Sending me spam-mails? My spam-filter would get rid of these.
    Send me advertising via snail-mail? Too expensive.

    Of course if they start to replace google-Ads with their own ads that would be quite inconspicuous. But they would have to openly sell this service to marketers and that would be obvious again.

    I am not afraid.

  • This thing needs to be addressed quickly. The internet is a huge sea that just moves as it wills.

    Look at Youtube, millions of copyrights ignored. So what they wrote the rules but who’s enforcing them? Everyday I see sites filled with copy written video material from Youtube placed on their websites as an attractant for people. Once they come to see some video then the websites owners have surrounded the video with advertisements and affiliate banners, pathetic what people get away with.

    The internet is just full of folks who are out for personal gain. As much as they can gain about us personally the more money they make.

  • I personally think broadband providers should not ever be able to monitor your internet activity. There’s so many privacy problems with it.

    Like what if you were sending an email or IM to someone sharing sensitive business information, would you really want that stored anywhere on the web?

    Someone with malicious intent could one day hack the broadband provider to get hold of the info.

    I’m totally against it.

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  • I realy dont worry about it at all.
    The information they can get form it is realy not something that people hide, I mean if they just come to you and say what you like and what you dislike then I we would be ready to tell them our choices, so just that they are doing this without our consent does not mean its bad for us.

    But I dont like the idea of spying on customers!