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What does your browsing history reveal about you?

03 Apr 2017

Phil Mellor

On Tuesday 28th March 2017 the US House of Representatives passed a bill that essentially removes the protections offered in the “Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services” rules – but what does that actually mean?

Well, for one it means that if you happen to be in the US you can assume that a marketer somewhere can and will buy your browsing history (or a version of it) so that you can be targeted with extremely relevant ads. On a fixed line connection it won’t be difficult to connect your likes and dislikes to you permanent home address and provide aggregated profiles of your entire neighbourhood, who knows perhaps this data will affect the advertising billboards in your town and city?

Isn’t That A Bit “Creepy”?

From talking with a few people (in the UK) everyone seems rather uncomfortable with the concept of their browsing history being made available for semi-public consumption, but when you ask they find it hard to describe their personal concept of privacy but instinctively feel that any kind of monitoring is somehow “wrong”.

Obviously I do not know about your browsing history, but I do know about mine – there’s nothing illegal in it, but I suspect I would be embarrassed if it were shown to my friends and neighbours – for example they might find out about my secret enjoyment of Judge Judy clips on YouTube.

I’ve been in and around the technology sector for the last 20 years or so and I’ve increasing been conscious of the internet not being as free as everyone thinks it is – the implicit pact is that the price of viewing any kind of content on the internet is paid for by being shown advertising – so why shouldn’t it be relevant?

It’ll Never Happen Here!

Want to bet on that? In 2008 a company called Phorm (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phorm) struck deals with BT, TalkTalk and Virgin to perform “deep packet” inspection on network traffic with a view to building an advertising network. The company left the UK in 2011 after their technology trial was made public by several tech-savvy people realising their internet traffic was being intercepted, and the subsequent uproar generated  by privacy watchdogs was enough to thrust the scheme into an untenable position.

Interestingly the backlash over the Phorm trial resulted in the discovery that because the laws were not written with this kind of private communications interception in mind, the Crown Prosecution Service could not prosecute Phorm or its executives. I’m led to believe these loopholes are now closed as part of RIPA (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/23/contents).

In any case – given the legislative challenges the UK parliament currently faces over Brexit and adopting EU laws I suspect it will be two or more years before any company would even attempt to introduce a Phorm-like network interception system.

Am I For It Or Against It?

As digital media marketer I understand the desire to want to do something like this, I don’t mind Google or Facebook doing it but the fact it “feels” like its blurring the internet/real-life boundary is making me a little apprehensive, so you could say: I’m undecided.