In January 2006, the Bush administration came under intense criticism for authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct electronic (soft) surveillance on citizens’ telephone and Internet correspondence without court approval. The NSA’s ability to monitor the daily communications of U.S. citizens was made possible by the willing participation of some of the largest telecommunications firms in the country (Verizon, BellSouth, MCI, Sprint, AT&T) to use data mining techniques to comb through telephone and Internet records in search of “suspicious behaviour.” Data mining, also known as “knowledge discovery in databases” (KDD), entails the extraction of implicit, previously unknown information from vast amounts of data. In this case, once patterns of communication are identified the telecommunications firms would provide the names of potential suspects to the authorities, setting off intensified cycles of more traditional forms of police (hard) surveillance.
Although I’m sometimes shocked by the level of ambivalence that friends, family and students exhibit toward protecting their privacy when using cell phones, Internet search engines and other new communication technologies, not all have let the issue fade. News today in the Washington Post that AT&T and Verizon, two of the biggest ISPs in the U.S., have responded to consumer concerns by agreeing to refrain from tracking customer Web behaviour unless they receive explicit permission to do so. This is a voluntary, not a legislated measure, no doubt designed to forestall government regulation and to challenge other big ISPs to do the same.
According to the Post report: “The announcement, made at a Senate committee hearing, represents a challenge to the rest of the Web world, where advertising is commonly delivered by companies that record a consumer’s visits across multiple Web sites. The practice, known as “behavioral targeting,” is largely invisible to customers and generally done without their consent.”
Under the new regime of practice, the default won’t be that consumers automatically “opt in” to participate in online tracking, but that they must configure their web browser if they want their Internet practices monitored. This is good news to consumers and privacy advocates, although some say it has the potential to radically affect industry-wide online advertising practices. Critics like the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an association representing the economic interests of ISPs (Google is a member) suggest that forcing users to “opt in” could undermine the Internet economy because advertising revenues underwrite so much of the content that appears online.