Friday, April 04, 2008

will big brother get a good look at your deep packet?

Occasionally you see articles that remind you (as if I needed reminding) that everything about you is a commodity, to be packaged and sold by corporations who, despite their protestations to the contrary, would sell their grandmother's secret recipe for oatmeal cookies for $5 - or a map of her DNA for $50.

Now, the Post reports that companies, with the connivance of the internet service providers that YOU pay every month, are tracking at least 100,000 Americans' internet usage very closely. This goes beyond cookies: "the new monitoring, known as 'deep-packet inspection,' enables a far wider view -- every Web page visited, every e-mail sent and every search entered. Every bit of data is divided into packets -- like electronic envelopes -- that the system can access and analyze for content."

And of course, this analysis will be used to direct advertising at you - as the article suggested, somebody visiting a website about the Boston Celtics might get advertisements for sneakers and Boston hotels.

Innocuous, right? Then why are the ISPs keeping this quiet for fear of customer revolt? Customers don't revolt over innocuous things, do they? Or could it be that the ISPs are afraid that yes, we might actually give a shit about the potential for this to expand even further the routine violations of privacy we all endure so that others can make a buck off of us, without our permission.

One of the companies involved in this is an outfit called NebuAd (what a name), which says at its website "Through our unique technology and ISP partnerships, NebuAd combines web-wide consumer visibility with micro-targeted ads delivered at the right time in the buying cycle. This network-level approach enables behavioral targeting to finally attain its true promise of a greater scale of impressions, and greater relevance to drive increased revenue per impression."

NebuAd says they assign numbers to surfers rather than using internet addresses. I wonder how complete that separation is, and how easily the number and the internet address could be linked back together again. I bet they could do it easily. After all, that's potentially very valuable informatin.

NebuAd also says they don't record surfing to porn or gambling pages, or to "sensitive subjects" like bankruptcy or medical information.

Allow me to be skeptical. Porn and gambling pages are GREAT places to set up ads. Half of my email is bankruptcy-related spam (no, I am not bankrupt). How long will NebuAd resist that temptation? If they resist, how long before a competitor gives in?

And how long before they make these deep packet searches available to the Department of Justice or FBI or some other law enforcement or torture agency that wants to know why I consistently google the terms "jihad", "death to infidels," and "fertilizer-based explosive"? (I don't - that's a rhetorical point, Mr. FBI Agent.)

Finally, it pisses me off that we don't get a god-damn dime for all this information they collect on us. Sure, they tell us how it is good for the customer because we get advertising aimed at us that better matches our interests. But I resent paying for internet service and then my ISP making another buck off of me by giving these companies permission to trawl thru my internet viewing habits. Much as I resent the fact that in most US states, "your" medical files are actually the DOCTOR'S property, not yours. Much as I resent the fact that many US states force you to give up a great deal of personal information to get a drivers license (that's OK), and then SELL that same information - address, phone number, age, social security number even - to any and all comers (very much NOT OK).

Bob Seger once sang, "I'm not a number." Sorry Bob, you were wrong. We're all numbers, we're all just data streams that businesses sell back and forth, and we are supposed to just shut up and enjoy the digital probing, which at best will invade our privacy, and at worst could lead to a heavy knock on the door and a muffled voice saying "This is the FBI."



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