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Every Click You Make
With information about users from deep-packet inspection, however, advertisers might learn that the person looking at the Celtics Web site is also a potential car customer because he recently visited the Ford site and searched in Google for "best minivans." That means car companies might be interested in sending an ad to that user at the Celtics site, too.
For all its promise, however, the service providers exploring and testing such services have largely kept quiet -- "for fear of customer revolt," according to one executive involved.
It is only through the companies that design the data collection systems -- companies such as NebuAd, Phorm and Front Porch -- that it is possible to gauge the technology's spread. Front Porch collects detailed Web-use data from more than 100,000 U.S. customers through their service providers, Maxson said. NebuAd has agreements with providers covering 10 percent of U.S. broadband customers, chief executive Bob Dykes said.
In England, Phorm is expected in the coming weeks to launch its monitoring service with BT, Britain's largest Internet broadband provider.
NebuAd and Front Porch declined to name the U.S. service providers they are working with, saying it's up to the providers to announce how they deal with consumer data.
Some service providers, such as Embarq and Wide Open West, or WOW, have altered their customer-service agreements to permit the monitoring.
Embarq describes the monitoring as a "preference advertising service." Wide Open West tells customers it is working with a third-party advertising network and names NebuAd as its partner.
Officials at WOW and Embarq declined to talk about any monitoring that has been done.
Each company allows users to opt out of the monitoring, though that permission is buried in customer service documents. The opt-out systems work by planting a "cookie," or a small file left on a user's computer. Each uses a cookie created by NebuAd.
Officials at another service provider, Knology, said it was working with NebuAd and is conducting a test of deep-packet inspection on "several hundred" customers in a service area it declined to identify.
"I don't view it as violating any privacy data at all," said Anthony Palermo, vice present of marketing at Knology. "My understanding is that all these companies go through great pains to hash out information that is specific to the consumer."
One central issue, of course, is how well the companies protect consumer data.