Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bresnan - Online Privacy Alert?

A report issued jointly last week by the Free Press Action Center and Public Enterprise detailed some disturbing information about an application used by several Internet Service Providers (ISPs) around the country to monitor users' web browsing actvity, and provide those users with advertising tailored to their web browsing habits.

This application is marketed to ISPs by a a company called NebuAd, and is an example of a potentially intrusive trend among Internet marketing firms known as Behavioral Advertising.

To quote the press release accompanying the report:
Robert M. Topolski, the chief technical consultant for the organizations, found that NebuAd uses special equipment that “monitors, intercepts and modifies the contents of Internet packets” as consumers go online. Topolski...said in the report that “NebuAd commandeers users’ Web browsers” to load tracking cookies and collects information from users in order to place ads from ISPs.
Internet privacy advocates and at least two Congressmen have expressed concern about this technology, especially since the 4th largest ISP in the country, Charter Communications, announced recently that they would implement the NebuAd application on their servers.

While Charter has since canceled that implementation, there is cause for concern for residents of the Grand Junction area, as Bresnan Communications has also been listed as a user of the NebuAd technology, along with CenturyTel, which provides local telephone service to the Collbran and Mesa areas of eastern Mesa County.

While not citing NebuAd by name, Bresnan's website contains a page that describes the "Advanced Advertising" technology being tested by them, as well as some FAQ's and a link to supposedly "opt out" your web browser from the service. I verified with a Bresnan customer service rep today that the technology in use by them is indeed provided by NebuAd.

There is considerable chatter on technology-related blogs such as Wired about this, along with some concern regarding the ability to truly "opt out" of this type of tracking. Many who are much more savvy about this than I are calling this revelation the Internet equivalent of illegal wiretapping.

NebuAd attempted to respond to the Free Press Action Center report with the following:
NebuAd does not collect or use any personally identifiable information. Any non-personally identifiable information that is used is anonymous and cannot, by itself or in combination, identify a specific person. Since a web user (ISP customer) is always anonymous within the NebuAd system, anonymous user profiles can never be linked to an identifiable web user. Therefore, we could not provide this information to a customer. However, a web user may opt-out at any time, at which time the profile would be immediately deleted.
Many comments on technology blogs quickly pointed out the self-contradictory nature of the above reply. If a web user and their profile is always anonymous, how can the profile be deleted without being able to link it to an individual user, perhaps via IP address or another method?

The only local web reference I could find was a link to an Associated Press story on the Sentinel's website, which did not mention Bresnan. There was nothing from the Free Press.

As of the time of this post I cannot locate any coverage in either local paper regarding the involvement of Bresnan or CenturyTel in this potentially egregious invasion of user privacy. Hopefully there will be some local follow-up in the upcoming days.

I am a Bresnan subscriber, and have already used the opt-out link provided on the Bresnan page, available here, near the bottom of the page. I will be watching this closely as it continues to unfold on the national level. If there continues to be no local angle, I'll attempt to contact Bresnan management later in the week.

In the meantime, the best information appears to be available here and here, or perhaps at 1-877-BRESNAN. I'm sure they would love to hear from you.

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