While the full United States Senate on Wednesday (July 9) takes up the subject of wiretapping by the government, the Senate Commerce Committee will take up the subject of wiretapping by private industry. It’s a tossup which one is more scary.
The Senate votes July 9 on the bill to grant the Executive Branch almost unlimited authority to wiretap private citizens without any judicial oversight. The Commerce Committee will hear testimony from Robert Dykes, the chairman of NebuAd, a controversial company recently in the news because his group came up with a novel way of getting detailed information about Internet users. NebuAd wasn’t satisfied to get information only from a customer’s use of one Web site. Instead, they want to see everything that a Web surfer does online.
Here’s Dykes pitching his company at a conference in New York earlier this year:
Note the level of detail about which Dykes boasts, and how he talks about the supremacy of the NebuAd system over Google’s relatively meagre advertising technology. Google’s Ad Sense only gives advertisers information about one Web page at a time. That’s an important point to remember, because whenever AT&T, for example, gets upset at reactions to the possibility it might filter content in its network, the company always points to Google.
But what AT&T wants to do for content filtering, and what NebuAd is doing with some broadband companies, is another level entirely because then the activity on the whole network, not only at one site, is at risk for invasions of privacy.
Listen to Dykes tell the conference about the advantages of NebuAd, a service that takes its information from within the network, unseen by any user. “Understand what pages you went to, we understand what search terms you went to, so we have much more knowledge about user than existing online systems,” Dykes said.
“We get to see virtually every site you go to,” Dykes added. Not only that, NebuAd can tell what you did at those sites. If it’s a travel site, we know that you’re looking to go to Las Vegas or to the South of France. If you go to an automotive site, you’re interested in a used car, luxury car or SUV. If it’s an electronics site, a Sony camera or Panasonic TV.” And it is all, for the moment, legal. And very scary. They know what ads you clicked on, whether ones sponsored by NebuAd’s partners or by competitors. It’s all made possible because NebuAd is taking advantage of its place in the network, not on a Web site or even in your computer.
Some of NebuAd’s customers,like Charter Communications, have been scared off by the [negative publicity](http://www.publicknowledge.org/node/1617) surrounding exposure of its business methods. That isn’t good enough. The Federal Trade Commission, which is also testifying at the July 9 hearing, should have privacy rules and enforce rules against deceptive practices. Congress is starting to get involved with the Senate hearing, and the House may get in on the act as well. That’s welcome attention. Legislation would be more welcome.