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Data pimping catches ISP on the hop

Who ate all the cookies?

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NebuAd aka Nebula

When one WOW! customer - we'll call him WOWed - first noticed those un-Google cookies on his machine, he assumed it was infected with spyware. "I realized that Google was loading slowly, and I spent hours trying to clean spyware off my system," WOWed told us. "Finally, I reinstalled my machine from scratch, installed all of Microsoft's patches, and the cookies came back. I was convinced that this was coming from the ISP."

And WOW! customer support did nothing to dissuade him. "They just said that I had spyware too, that they ran tests from their office and that when they went to Google, they didn't see a problem."

A second WOW! customer - we'll call him WOWed Again - had a similar experience. "When I first noticed this, I called customer support, and no one knew anything about it," WOWed Again told us. "Then I called again and pointed them to the new terms and conditions.

"The rep said 'Oh no, sir, we don't monitor any internet usage. We don't care what you're browsing.'" WOWed Again has since noticed that his January bill from WOW! mentioned that the ISP's terms of service had changed.

But the company eventually told both customers that its network was equipped with NebuAd hardware. According to WOWed, a company employee - believed to be the head of customer service - told him "You can opt-out if you go to Nebula's [sic] site."

NebuAd does provide an opt-out, but both WOW! users complain that this does not remove NebuAd's cookies from their machines. "NebuAd says they don't track you if you opt-out," WOWed Again said. "But if I go to Google, my browser is still calling back to NebuAd's servers. I'm not happy with this at all."

When we asked NebuAd about its opt-out cookie, the company called it an "industry-standard mechanism."

"Once a user opts out, the user’s surfing habits are no longer being observed by NebuAd," the company told us. "Once a user opts out, NebuAd removes the history on the user and will ignore the user's subsequent surfing habits. An opt-out flag in a cookie is the industry-standard way of signaling to the system not to track this user."

The company also said that some web surfers may notice a NebuAd cookie on their machine even if their ISP is not a partner. "Because we buy some media unrelated to our ISP partnerships, the fact that a user sees our cookie does not indicate that the user’s ISP is using NebuAd."

According to WOWed Again, when a WOW! customer support rep finally acknowledge the company had contracted with NebuAd, she assured him this wasn't a problem. "She said 'We really haven't gotten too many calls about this, so apparently people think there's value in getting targeted ads.'"

"I should have told her 'You haven't gotten many calls because no one knows about it.'"

Yes, NebuAd has now told WOW! that it needs to be more proactive when notifying customers. And WOW! says it began sending emails to customers early last week (though it doesn't have email addresses for all customers).

But according to WOW!, NebuAd didn't give the ISP its so-called best practices until after the company's service was discussed on Broadband Reports and in various news stories. Some have argued that behavioral ad trackers have received an unfair shake in the press. But on some level, press is necessary. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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