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Cavalcade of privacy watchdogs bark for data pimping probe

Deep packet inspection goes to Washington

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Fifteen privacy watchdogs - yes, fifteen - have tossed a letter at Congress, urging the House Telecommunications Subcommittee to hold public hearings on the use of so-called behavioral ad serving technologies. They want further scrutiny of ISPs pimping customer data to the likes of Phorm, NebuAd, and Front Porch.

Addressed to Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey and ranking member Joe Barton, the letter called out one ISP in particular: Charter Communications, which is set to launch a NebuAd test sometime this month.

Using deep packet inspection hardware sitting inside Charter's cable-based network, NebuAd will track the web page and search data of "a couple hundred" customers in San Luis Obispo, California, Fort Worth, Texas, Oxford, Massachusetts, and Newtown, Connecticut - unless those customers opt-out of the service. It will then use this data to serve up targeted online ads. You know: If you search for French vacations, you'll soon see ads for French vacations.

Markey and Barton are well aware of Charter's tests. Last month, they chucked their own letter to the ISP, urging Charter to talk things over before the tests went live. The Congressman suspect that unless its opt-in only, Charter's NebuAd pact violates privacy provisions laid down by Section 631 of the US Communications Act.

But those fifteen watchdogs - including groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, Public Knowledge, the World Privacy Forum, the Media Access Project and the EFF - want additional scrutiny.

"We were pleased that you raised questions regarding the legal status of [the Charter-NebuAd plan] under existing privacy laws relating to cable systems," their letter read. "It has been widely reported, however, that NebuAd is not the only company working with ISPs to collect web browsing information for these purposes, and Charter is not the only ISP working with such companies.

"We are concerned that such ISP wiretapping schemes may violate multiple privacy laws and policies. These practices should clearly be investigated."

According to Jessica Schafer, a spokeswoman for Ed Markey's office, Markey and Barton have yet to sit down with Charter, but a meeting is in the works. She wouldn't comment on the watchdog letter, expect to say "We appreciate the issue. That's why we're looking into it."

A Charter spokeswoman was unaware of the letter when we called. We sent her a copy, and she responded by confirming that the company will soon sit down with the congressmen.

"Charter takes the responsibility of protecting its customers' information seriously," she said. "We are engaged in dialogue in response to the letter we received from Chairman Markey and Ranking Member Barton to provide a better understanding of our service. We look forward to maintaining an open communication with policymakers to alleviate any concerns." ®

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