Does Big Brother know where you've been surfing?

If you think no one will ever know about the Web sites you were surfing last night, guess again. It may not be your spouse, your boss or a cop - but there's growing interest in what sort of data your Internet Service Provider is collecting about your viewing habits.

If you think no one will ever know about the Web sites you were surfing last night, guess again. It may not be your spouse, your boss or a cop - but there's growing interest in what sort of data your Internet Service Provider is collecting about your viewing habits.

As for me, I just finished reading a very interesting piece by my former Washington Post colleague Rob Pegoraro, who wrote about "deep packet inspection." Given the technology that's out there, monitoring Web usage has grown beyond cookies on your computer to data scouring on your ISP's servers. Rob writes:

Peering inside the digital packets of data zipping across the Internet -- in real time, for tens of thousands of users at once -- was commercially impractical until recently. But the ceaseless march of processing power has made it feasible. Unsurprisingly, companies have been trying to turn this potential into profit. By tracking users' Web habits this closely, they can gain a much more detailed picture of their interests -- and then display precisely targeted, premium-priced ads. Equally unsurprising, these attempts have become a public-relations tar pit for Internet providers that experimented with this technology without giving users fair warning.

In a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, lawmakers asked dozens of providers if they had used deep packet inspection and most said they had not. But a couple, including Washington Post-owned Cable One, said it had tested it using a service provided by Redwood City-based NebuAd. Of course, everyone is saying that privacy has been respected and that personal and sensitive matters - emails, financial transactions and so on - were stripped from the data first. But how do we know? I mean, we don't even necessarily know if our usage patterns are being monitored.

I guess I already know I'm being watched. As a Gmail user, there are ads related to the topics in my e-mail conversations. And yet, I'm OK with that. But this data packet level of inspection is just so far out of my control that it's a bit unnerving. Case in point: If I don't like the Gmail ads, I can stop using Gmail and go another route for my mail services. I make that decision and I control it. In the case of deep packet inspection, my ISP holds the key - not me. Rob uses an excellent analogy in his column:

Tracking via cookies is the rough equivalent of a supermarket clerk noting that you spend a lot of time in Aisle 9 checking out cereal but never duck into Aisle 2 for frozen dinners. Deep packet inspection, by contrast, is more like the clerk following you to see which boxes of cereal you eyeballed -- and doing so at every store you visit, even those run by other companies.

I try to surf the Web without paranoia and, if anyone was tracking my usage, they'd probably think I'm on tech news overload or would wonder why on Earth an educated adult subscribes to ridiculously sophomoric YouTube vlogs. (Hey, it's the same reason I watch South Park - we all need a break, right?) I have no immediate problems with the idea of deep packet inspection. I think I would just like to know when and if it's happening. And I think I'd want the option to opt-out or at least be compensated in some way for the valuable advertising data I'm providing about myself.

A week for two in Hawaii would be nice but I'd probably settle for a discount on my monthly ISP bill.

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