Commentary

Kindsight Readies Test Of ISP-Based Targeting, Hasn't Named ISPs

Two years after complaints by lawmakers, consumer advocates and others shut down behavioral targeting company NebuAd -- which partnered with Internet service providers to serve ads to people based on their Web activity -- another company, Kindsight, is readying tests of the same controversial technology in the U.S., The Wall Street Journalreports. (This paragraph has been updated to reflect the fact that tests haven't yet started.)

But unlike NebuAd, which never sought users' explicit permission, Kindsight only deploys its targeting technology on users who have opted in to the service in exchange for free security services, including protection from identity theft. In that sense, Kindsight operates much more like the old adware companies, which offered consumers something they apparently wanted -- like free screensavers -- in exchange for the ability to track them around the Web, bucket them into marketing categories and serve them ads.

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Of course, whether consumers will think it wise to allow the data mining of all of their online communications -- emails, searches, visits to non-commercial sites -- in exchange for free security programs remains to be seen, especially given that federal laws already largely limit the liability of identity-theft victims.

Kindsight says that it protects users' privacy and doesn't collect "personally identifiable information," like names and addresses. By now, however, it's clear that individuals can be identified based on supposedly "anonymous" information, like search queries.

The Journal also reported that Kindsight works with six "tier-one" ISPs, yet the company refuses to name any of them. That decision in itself seems problematic: If the technology benefits consumers, and if they have truly opted in -- and presumably know they're being tracked and targeted -- then why the secrecy?

Regardless, Kindsight likely won't be able to keep those details confidential for long, given the kind of attention that lawmakers are devoting to privacy these days. If Kindsight wants to prove that consumers have consented to the platform, the first step will involve stating which ISPs it works with so that observers can see for themselves what kind of notices those companies provided.

Correction:The post above should have said that Kindsight plans to soon launch its new ad targeting service. The company currently is testing a security service with six Internet service providers, which it hasn't yet named.

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