Feeds

American data pimper exposes ad equation

26,000 tracked, 15 opt out

Top three mobile application threats

How much notice did American ISPs provide when testing NebuAd's Phorm-like behavioral ad targeter? Not as much as NebuAd CEO Bob Dykes would have you believe.

Responding to an open letter from three big-name US Congressman, Middle American ISP Embarq Corp. has admitted that before activating NebuAd's deep packet inspection hardware, it notified customers with no more than an update to its 5,000-word privacy policy.

Bob Dykes has always claimed that NebuAd's ISP partners provide "direct notice" to customers. Speaking to The Reg in April, he was adamant that a paragraph posted to an ISP's website or buried in its terms of service does not qualify as direct notification. And when he testified before Congress last week, he said that ISPs customers always receive an email or a letter or some extra words in their billing statements.

Of course, even these methods are less then adequate. As Ed Markey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, told Dykes during last week's Congressional hearing, NebuAd should always require an opt-in. In an effort to target online ads, NebuAd's deep packet inspection hardware tracks the search and browsing activity of web surfers from inside an ISP's network.

At one point during the hearing, Markey accused Dykes of "beating consumers." But Dykes insisted his system maintains user privacy by anonymizing IP addresses and offering an opt-out.

Earlier in the week, Markey and fellow Congressmen John D. Dingell (chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce) and Joe Barton (ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce) fired a letter at the Kansas-based Embarq, demanding details on the NebuAd test it performed earlier this year. Since The Reg first contacted the company in April, it has openly acknowledged the test, but refused to give specifics.

As it turns out, Embarq tested the technology on about 26,000 broadband customers in Gardner, Kansas over the course of about two weeks. During that time, only 15 customers opt-ed out.

Chances are, most of the 26,000 didn't realize there was brand new language buried somewhere in the company's privacy policy.

Nonetheless, Embarq says it provided customers with adequate notice. "Embarq followed the prevailing industry practices of the most similar business model, that of online advertising networks, which also collect anonymous information across multiple unrelated web sites and use it to serve personalized display advertisements," the company explained this week in a letter to Markey, Dingell, and Barton.

But ordinary ad networks aren't tracking all your browsing activity from inside your ISP. In failing to require an opt-in, NebuAd and other behavioral ad targeters may run afoul of the Communications Act of 1934, the Cable Act of 1984, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and other wiretapping-related US statutes.

Of course, Embarq says it conducted its very own legal analysis of the situation, and the company has no doubt that an opt-out is enough.

It should be noted, however, that NebuAd's cookie-based opt-out isn't quite an opt-out. Ars Technica has spoken with a network engineer who's worked with NebuAd's hardware, and he confirmed that even if you opt-out, NebuAd continues to collect your browsing activity.

"When the user opts out, NebuAd does not collect the data on that user, and we do not serve targeted ads to that user," NebuAd has told us. "The data flowing through the system is immediately and permanently flushed out." The key words here are "data flowing through the system." Your info is still leaving your ISP for a third party. ®

Top three mobile application threats

More from The Register

next story
A black box for your SUITCASE: Now your lost luggage can phone home – quite literally
Breakfast in London, lunch in NYC, and your clothes in Peru
Broadband Secretary of SHEEP sensationally quits Cabinet
Maria Miller finally resigns over expenses row
Skype pimps pro-level broadcast service
Playing Cat and Mouse with the media
EE dismisses DATA-BURNING glitch with Orange Mail app
Bug quietly slurps PAYG credit - yet EE denies it exists
Like Google, Comcast might roll its own mobile voice network
Says anything's possible if regulators approve merger with Time Warner
Turnbull leaves Australia's broadband blackspots in the dark
New Statement of Expectations to NBN Co offers get-out clauses for blackspot builds
Facebook claims 100 MEEELLION active users in India
Who needs China when you've got the next billion in your sights?
Facebook splats in-app chat, whacks brats into crack yakety-yak app
Jibber-jabbering addicts turfed out just as Zuck warned
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a defence for mobile apps
In this whitepaper learn the various considerations for defending mobile applications; from the mobile application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies needed to properly assess mobile applications risk.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.