Blog Post

I Always Feel Like My ISP's Watching Me

Today the FCC took issue with how Comcast managed its network, essentially it looked at the packets and blocked or throttled those related to peer-to-peer applications on the upload side. If you thought warrantless wiretapping was intrusive, think about all the information you send and receive via data packets.

We’ve tracked a lot of these rather disheartening developments in previous posts, but after Google declared privacy a mythical construct, we thought we’d drive it home. Here are three ways your ISP monitors (quite literally) your data and seeks to control or monetize it.

So as not to leave you feeling too powerless (or totally reliant on Congress actually making any changes to protect your privacy) the Electronic Frontier Foundation has released some open source software called Switzerland, designed to help Internet users detect if their ISP is mucking around with their packets. There’s a network effect benefit here, because the more machines have the software, the easier it is to test what happens to your packets en route.

16 Responses to “I Always Feel Like My ISP's Watching Me”

  1. “If they (isp’s) want to share in advertising revenue or make more money off their services, they need to provide a compelling and clearly stated value proposition to the user. They aren’t doing that in this case.”

    here’s a compelling and clearly stated value proposition: WE BUILT THE NETWORK. THIS IS HOW WE’RE GONNA DO BUSINESS. IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, GO USE ANOTHER NETWORK. THE END.

  2. Stacey – Service providers must constantly improve the value of their services. If ads subsidize the end user’s access to the internet, would that be interesting to the end user? If the service provider monitors the network in order to prioritize equipment upgrades, the end user could once again be the primary beneficiary. My point is that monitoring and metering are not bad when the resulting information is used to increase value for the customer.

  3. rationaluser

    Stephen, the point of these programs is “added intelligence” to ad placement.

    Obviously there are groups that want to push the limits of this new technology but the real point of this is to make the ads you are already exposed to more relevant.

    The carriers are not doing this alone…they are not looking to hijack advertising or to modify content…they are and need to be doing this with the existing online ad ecosystem by working with ad server companies that already have relationships with ad networks and direct web publisher to make “existing inventory” more valuable

    in your example of apple…these are the extreme cases. these tactics would be obvious and intrusive which would devalue ad inventory, squander enduser goodwill and thus defeat the economic inventive for carriers to participate in the online ad ecosystem.

  4. rationaluser

    Stacy, I hear you…the carriers don’t deserve a lot of sympathy from the enduser. There absolutely needs to be more transparency in this whole process. I think the carriers see how the market perceives them in terms of net neutrality and they thought they could do this on the down low and under the terms of existing privacy statements. If you look at many of these privacy statements the carries have the right to analyze the data to enhance the user experience. Thus they felt these DPI programs fell under that language…making ads more relevant.

    I’m not defending the tactic…just sadden that it is playing out like this as if all parties would work together it could be a win-win. If educated properly I think many endusers would embrace this so they stop seeing these silly dancing insurance ads :)

    In full disclosure I’ve worked in a DSL provider…I think implementing these types of programs could provide the economics to drive discounts, higher QoS and faster speeds. It is these types of programs that should give users more choices and lead to more interactive services from broadband providers such as IPTV, etc.

    My point is that we need to stop straight chastising the carriers as it just emboldens their net neutrality stance and come up with solutions that leverages the power of the network. This stuff goes on all the time from the publisher/portal standpoint. Integrating it down to the network level can actually help insure better privacy and better opt-outs. I’m also very familiar with how these “black boxes” and software work in the network and they are much more conducive to avoiding PII than other types of profiling and targeting.

  5. My problem with inserted advertising, is where exactly is it going to be inserted? Suddenly in the middle of is an ad for Vista? In the middle of is a PETA ad?

    The carriers expect common carrier status when it comes to legal problems. The moment they begin to insert or modify content, they lose common carrier status. They modify content on a single website, and they are liable for ALL content because the reason will be given that they can and have.

  6. Stacey Higginbotham

    Rationaluser, I am actually more concerned about Google and other intrusive technologies, but that wasn’t the point of this particular post. On the other hand, I don’t buy into the “poor me” argument put forth by the carriers. If they want to share in advertising revenue or make more money off their services, they need to provide a compelling and clearly stated value proposition to the user. They aren’t doing that in this case.

    Knowing how the software works, I actually might not mind participating in such a program, provided it actually works the way NebuAd’s CEO has laid out, and my carrier shared some of its windfall with me through a price discount of some sort or faster service. It’s no creepier than some of the ads I already see that know where I live.

  7. Mark Pesce was Quoted recently saying “Privacy is a Construct of the Enlightenment”

    If your worried about privacy Stacey write an Article about Google and for that matter dont use any Google services ,Twitter ,Facebook or any other service or online entity that tracks you and your data.

    If your really paranoid use TOR or just stay off the internet ,phone ,street and out of view of the any number of cameras and satellites watching you at any time of the day ;)

  8. Stacey – you missed one category. Deep packet inspection for (un)lawful wiretapping. I’m specifically thinking about the AT&T wiretapping first uncovered by EFF:

    Everyone using the Internet needs to realize that every piece of information they send (email, web cookies, Facebook message, IM, etc.) can be read and archived by dozens (if not hundreds) of organizations between your computer and the destination site.

    While we can argue about US law and how the Internet is a different medium than phones and snail mail (both have some legal privacy protection), outside of the US things are considerably different. And you may never know that your information is passing through a foreign owned piece of equipment or country.

    We should not be too alarmed about the lack of privacy on the Internet – it is the same paradigm for other forms of communication. Does FedEx scan your packages and read the contents before delivery (I truthfully don’t know but can’t find anyplace where they claim that privacy is maintained)?

    Bottomline – if you want privacy for your communication on the Internet use encryption. Strong encryption. Otherwise expect that everything you type will be read and analyzed.

    @vinnie mirchandani – you’re showing your age (as am I) :) :)

  9. I think Rockwell should update his hit from the 80s :)

    “I’m just an average man
    With an slow web connection
    I work from nine to five
    to pay Comcast and Verizon
    All I want is to be left alone
    with my basic mobile phone
    But why do I always feel
    Like I’m in the twilight zone

    And (I always feel like)
    (The NSA’s watching me)
    And I have no pennies or privacy
    (I always feel like)
    (Somebody’s watching me)
    Tell me, is it just my ISP”

  10. rationaluser

    this is all very alarmist with unfair bashing of ISP, carriers, operators, etc.

    the amount of personal information that Google collects is far more problematic than the data being collected via vendors on behalf of ISPs.

    from the network level you can now have a true opt out rather than questionable cookies.

    if done properly and ad placement tactics are not intrusive we can have an enhanced user experience with more relevant ads.

    this is a “commercial” solution for the net neutrality debate. i find it humorous that one day the press is in an uproar about programs like DPI for targeted advertising and then the next day upset about proposed metering broadband.

    Of course the carriers, ISPs, etc need to be doing things to improve service, increase broadband speeds and reach to customer. And of course there needs to be a check and balance as to this level of targeting with defined and fully disclosed privacy measures but to condemn this practices without fully understanding the economics and ecosystem is irresponsible and actually stifles advancement…it is this type of alarmist reaction that causes a knee jerk reaction on the part of carriers to move forward with metered broadband pricing.

    lets have a meaningful discussion on how these carriers/ISPs can participate in the advertising/application ecosystem such that all the players benefit from improved economics and the enduser experience is improved with more relevance.

  11. I don’t see what hte big deal is. Does gigaom track where comments are coming from? and measure the volume of comments and the ways that we as users of your service interact with your service?

    If we DOS your website, do you have a load balancer to offload that DOS activity?

    Comcast built the network. They can manage it how they want. If consumers don’t like it, they can go to another ISP or build their own ISP.