Every Click You Make

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008

The online behavior of a small but growing number of computer users in the United States is monitored by their Internet service providers, who have access to every click and keystroke that comes down the line.

The companies harvest the stream of data for clues to a person's interests, making money from advertisers who use the information to target their online pitches.

The practice represents a significant expansion in the ability to track a household's Web use because it taps into Internet connections, and critics liken it to a phone company listening in on conversations. But the companies involved say customers' privacy is protected because no personally identifying details are released.

The extent of the practice is difficult to gauge because some service providers involved have declined to discuss their practices. Many Web surfers, moreover, probably have little idea they are being monitored.

But at least 100,000 U.S. customers are tracked this way, and service providers have been testing it with as many as 10 percent of U.S. customers, according to tech companies involved in the data collection.

Although common tracking systems, known as cookies, have counted a consumer's visits to a network of sites, 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.

"You don't want the phone company tapping your phone calls, and in the same way you don't want your ISP tapping your Web traffic," said Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group. "There's a fear here that a user's ISP is going to betray them and turn their information over to a third party."

In fact, newly proposed Federal Trade Commission guidelines for behavioral advertising have been outpaced by the technology and do not address the practice directly. Privacy advocates are preparing to present to Congress their concerns that the practice is done without consumer consent and that too little is known about whether such systems adequately protect personal information.

Meanwhile, many online publishers say the next big growth in advertising will emerge from efforts to offer ads based not on the content of a Web page, but on knowing who is looking at it. That, of course, means gathering more information about consumers.

Advocates of deep-packet inspection see it as a boon for all involved. Advertisers can better target their pitches. Consumers will see more relevant ads. Service providers who hand over consumer data can share in advertising revenues. And Web sites can make more money from online advertising, a $20 billion industry that is growing rapidly.

With the service provider involved in collecting consumer data, "there is access to a broader spectrum of the Web traffic -- it's significantly more valuable," said Derek Maxson, chief technology officer of Front Porch, a company that collects such data from millions of users in Asia and is working with a number of U.S. service providers.

Consider, say, the Boston Celtics Web site. Based on its content, it posts ads for products a Celtics fan might be interested in: Adidas, a Boston hotel and so on.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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