More electronic snooping

Manfred Mareck

Using personal data is a growing trend, especially when it comes to online advertising. It enables advertisers to target ads more precisely, reduces wastage and, in theory, ensures delivery of relevant messages to individual consumers – so everybody benefits. But strangely those who collect this increasing amount of personal data are often reluctant to inform those whose online usage and behaviour they monitor.

Social network site Facebook was widely criticised when it introduced Beacon, a system that tracked users' habits on and off its site in order to serve ads tailored to specific interests. In the UK, telecom provider BT came under fire after it admitted that it secretly used special 'spyware' on thousands of its broadband customers to monitor their internet usage. It was not until the UK Information Commissioner started to investigate that BT decided to come clean. Until then complaints by subscribers who thought that something was amiss were dismissed, being told that the problem they had experienced was due to a software virus. The providers of these tracking programmes have also come under fire in the US. According to the Washington Post over 100,000 internet users have been monitored by their ISP, using 'deep packet inspection' software such as NebuAd, Front Porch and Phorm, the latter having been identified as the company behind BT's recent snooping expedition.