Compliance Management, Network Security, Privacy

Web providers admit to tracking users without their knowledge

Several internet network operators admitted to a Congressional subcommittee that they use targeted-advertising technology without explicitly informing customers, according to the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Thirty-three internet operators received a letter from ranking members of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee regarding privacy concerns raised by the data collection practices of tailoring internet advertising based on a consumer's web surfing activity.

While more than a dozen companies responded to the inquiry by stating they do not target advertising based on individual customer habits, most of them have either run targeted-advertising trials or actively engage in some behavioral advertising.

For example, in its response to the House Committee and published on its blog, Google stated that the company “provides advertising based on consumers' activities online. We strive to do this in a way that provides value to our users and protects their privacy.”

Jessica Schafer, communications director for committee member Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), told on Wednesday that staff members are still analyzing the responses from companies.  However, Markey is emphatic that online users have a right to explicitly know when their broadband provider is tracking their activity and collecting potentially sensitive and personal information.

“New technologies, such as deep packet inspection technologies, have the ability to track every single website that a consumer visits while surfing the web,” he said in a statement when the letter was sent on Aug. 1. “This sweeping ability to collect, analyze, and profile how individuals use their broadband connection raises clear privacy issues and I believe such activity should occur only with the express prior consent of individual citizens.”

As the technology allowing companies to more closely follow an internet user's online behavior becomes more sophisticated and more efficient, concerns about the eventual impact on consumer privacy will rise, Brock Meeks, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy and Technology told 

“The concern comes from the unknown," he said. "What types of data are being collected? Who has access to that data? How long is it stored? What access does the consumer have to this data?”

Online behavioral advertising isn't inherently a bad thing, Meeks added. “Some users --like myself -- might welcome ads narrowly targeted to their interests. The problem comes when companies don't let the consumer drive the process. Anytime a consumer's information is being collected the consumer should have the ability to proactively decide whether or not to allow that process to take place.”

Markey and his colleagues plan to introduce legislation next year that would require consumers “opt in” before their data can be tracked online.


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