UK ISPs To Start Tracking Your Surfing To Serve You Ads

from the pirvacy-please dept

For years now, ISPs have been searching for alternative revenue streams to avoid just being "dumb pipes." A few years ago, they picked up on the fact that they have a tremendous amount of data about what you (yes, you!) do online. A bunch of ISPs then started selling your clickstream data to companies that could do something useful with it (though, those ISPs probably neglected to tell you they were doing this). Late last year, we heard about a company that was trying to work with ISPs to make use of that data themselves to insert their own ads based on your surfing history -- and now we've got the first report of some big ISPs moving into this realm. Over in the UK three big ISPs, BT, Carphone Warehouse and Virgin Media have announced plans to use your clickstream data to insert relevant ads as you surf through a new startup called Phorm.

While Phorm claims that it keeps your data private "by tracking individual users with an assigned number only," that's hardly assuring. After all, remember that both AOL and Netflix have released similar anonymized data where identifying info was replaced with an assigned number... and it didn't take long for both sets of data to be de-anonymized. While it's no surprise that ISPs would want to get into the advertising business, and to think that they could better target ads thanks to their knowledge of your entire surfing history, it's going to freak some people out (and potentially cause some serious privacy problems). All the more reason to figure out how encrypt your traffic and hide your activities from your ISP.

Filed Under: advertising, clickstream data, isps
Companies: bt, carphone warehouse, virgin media


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  1. identicon
    Techteam at Phorm, 22 Feb 2008 @ 3:01am

    Relevance and Privacy protection

    Hello Mike, I’m a member of the Tech team at Phorm. You know - there’s no way the AOL situation would happen with our technology. The OIX throws away raw data instantaneously so there’s no click stream history to be inadvertently released. I know what we're doing seems out of the ordinary from what’s been seen previously in the online Ad space - so I just wanted to make a couple of points to clarify how the technology works. After all it is counterintuitive to claim that you can present consumers with more relevant ads without collecting and storing personal information - but that is exactly what our system does. If a subscriber agrees to participate – maybe because they are tired of receiving ads that have no relevance to the products and services they want to buy – they get a random number. So they are anonymous to the OIX. As they browse anonymously they match advertising channels that have been defined by patterns of URLs, keywords and search terms. But what’s so neat, is that even before each page loads the information observed from that page is deleted. The only data left in the system is just a random number and the channel it matched. In addition the OIX only looks at information relevant to the ad channels - so it doesn’t scan names, numbers, emails, secure pages and form. Nor does it allow ad Channels to be constructed for a range of sensitive areas like adult content, alcohol, medical - so again browsing behaviour in these areas simply isn’t observed. Since there’s no personal data stored – nothing can be traced to an individual and there’s no information to reverse engineer. There’s no interface or database in the system where a UID can be entered to retrieve profile information. We understand that even with all these safeguards - users may not want to participate, and that's alright. There's a simple option for users to opt out on webwise.com. We even tell them to how to block the domain for a more permanent option. The team here has really worked hard over many years to build the system from the ground up with privacy at its core. We’ve also worked closely with user privacy groups in the UK to make sure that we did this right, and that user's privacy is protected. I'd be happy to discuss any further questions you may have. Pop over a note and I'll send over my contact information. Cheers, Tech team

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