Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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10/21/2012
10:11 PM
Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer
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Verizon Data Collection Doesn't Bother Me

There is a deep, dark, secret on the Web: Advertisers are trying to sell you products and services. To do this they will stop at nothing, even paying ISPs to show you advertisements designed to match your interests! Naturally we are helpless against these wiles and will buy whatever we are told to. The latest privacy Nazi? Verizon, who (gasp!) aggregates user data.

Why are some people so afraid of advertising?

Privacy scares often revolve around a "conspiracy" by companies to use the Internet to advertise products. Worse, they try to advertise products they have reason to believe you'll want to buy. Scandalous.

[Update: Verizon posted a notice last week responding to these privacy concerns. They make many of the same points I do.]

The latest commotion is reported by Declan McCullagh at CNet: Verizon is bragging about its ability to provide aggregate tracking data based on monitoring of user activity. Notice the word "aggregate". I emphasize it because, despite claims by self-appointed privacy advocates, it makes all the difference in the world. Verizon isn't selling information about you, personally; it is telling advertisers things like "22% of mobile users at 3AM are on shopping sites." Advertisers buy ads to target users with particular behavioral profiles.

Yes, in order to aggregate that data Verizon needs to collect your personal data, and here it has to be careful. It would seem from the article that Verizon is targeting specific users based on their profiles. I've seen nothing to indicate that Verizon is reading your e-mail or scraping Web forms you're filling out. It's just noting where you're going and when, and clearly this is--or has the potential to be--private information. So it hasn't disclosed the information it monitored, but it is using it.

The lawyers and advocates McCullagh quotes are concerned that these actions violate federal wiretap law. Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation says:

"I don't see any substantive difference between collecting content from one person and turning it over to someone, and collecting it from multiple people, aggregating that information and then turning the aggregated data over to someone else," Fakhoury says. "In the end, there is still a capturing of content from the user at some point -- and that's what the potential (Wiretap Act) problem is."

I'm not going to venture an opinion on whether these particular activities violate that or any other particular law. Even if I were a lawyer, this area of law is undeveloped and we don't know how it's going to end up being interpreted by the courts. But to me the difference between disclosing details of an individual and disclosing aggregate data is huge and obvious. In one case personal information is being disclosed and in the other it isn't.

This privacy extremism reeks of policy prescriptions doomed to unintended consequences. The CNet article, for instance, mentions the "controversial" practice of deep packet inspection (DPI)--analyzing network packets for information on a user.

Long before the term got associated with ad profiling, it was in general use in network security, generally by intrusion detection systems (IDS) and intrusion prevention systems (IPS). Network security monitoring systems dig into the user's communications looking for evidence of malicious behavior. Some of this evidence exists in what is, technically, user data. So in order to perform this crucial function, we need DPI. But even more accessible examples prove the point: It's pretty much impossible to do spam filtering without deep packet inspection. Does federal wiretap law make an exception for it? According to Fakhoury, quoted above, all that matters is that content is collected.

The point I'm making is that DPI is a tool, not an inherent evil. It can be used for good or bad purposes, so be skeptical when you hear the term DPI being cast about as if it were invented by the Stasi.

Everyone (except maybe Julian Assange) believes in privacy to some degree, so I figure I'm as entitled to call myself a privacy advocate as anyone else. I just don't see what's so scary about advertising. So what if it's targeted based on your behavior? They can't force you to buy anything, not even to click on an ad, and everyone knows there's not a whole lot of clicking going on.

Here's a "secret" for you: Almost all of the free stuff you get on the Internet, including this website, isn't just given away. It's paid for by ad sales. The higher in value those ads are, the more free stuff we can afford to provide. In other words, an effective advertising system is crucial to the provision of free content on the Internet. Think about that before you think we should stifle it.

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