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American cable giant joins data pimping club

Charter member

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Charter Communications, the eighth largest ISP in the States, has jumped into bed with NebuAd, a behavioral ad targeting firm along the lines of Phorm and Front Porch.

As reported by The New York Times, Charter will begin testing NebuAd's service sometime over the next month, with an eye towards tracking the search and browsing habits of nearly 3 million people - and making some extra money.

Using deep packet inspection hardware sitting on Charter's cable-based network, NebAd will track every web page visited by all those poor souls who don't opt out. It will then use this data to serve up targeted ads. If someone searches for cars, they'll soon see ads for cars.

"We can track someone looking for a luxury car, not just a car - someone searching not just for travel but travel to the south of France or Las Vegas," is how NebuAd CEO Bob Dykes described the service in a recent interview with The Reg.

Of course, the company also says it records no personally identifiable information.

The (semi-)good news is that Charter has been a bit more open about its NebuAd partnership than other ISPs, including WOW!, Embarq, and Knology. As first leaked by Broadband Reports, the St. Louis-based Charter has actually notified customers with real life letters.

That said, the letters includes words like this:

I am writing to inform you of an enhancement coming soon to your web browsing experience via Charter’s High-Speed Internet service. While continuing to deliver the same fast and reliable Internet service you’ve always received, innovative new technology enables Charter to provide you with an enhanced online experience that is more customized to your interests and activities.

As a result, the advertising you typically see online will better reflect the interests you express through your web-surfing activity. You will not see more ads - just ads that are more relevant to you.

Needless to say, not everyone sees Phorm and the Phormettes as "enhancements." But Charter does point users to an opt-out page. Customers should note, however, that this is a cookie-based opt-out. If you delete your cookies, switch browsers, or hook up a new machine, the tracking starts anew.

And, of course, those customers shouldn't have to opt out.

A Charter spokeswoman did respond to our request for comment, but she was unable to put us in touch with someone who could actually field our questions. When The New York Times asked senior vice president Ted Schremp whether Phorm and Phormettes should use an opt-in model, he said that "opt-out has become the norm for all targeting on the Internet."

Schremp wouldn't tell the paper how much NebuAd is paying, but he confirmed that Charter is in this for the money. "We want to leverage technology in a way that makes sense for our economic model," he said. ®

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