A new report claims the controversial behavioral ad firm inserts hijacking code into browsers.
Two watchdog groups accused Silicon Valley startup
NebuAd June 18 of hijacking Web sites and intercepting users' browsers. NebuAd
is an online advertising company that provides targeted advertising for ISPs.
According to a new technical report (PDF)
Free Press and Public Knowledge, NebuAd uses special equipment that
"monitors, intercepts and modifies the contents of Internet packets"
as consumers go online. The report found that NebuAd inserts extra hidden
code into users' Web browsers that was not sent by the Web site being visited.
In turn, the code directs the browser to another site not requested or even
seen by the consumer, where more hidden code is downloaded and executed to add
more tracking cookies. Using the secretly collected information, NebuAd
serves up ads based on the user's browsing habits.
"Apparently, neither the consumers nor the affected Web sites have
actual knowledge of NebuAd's interceptions and modifications," the report
The report was written by Robert M. Topolski, chief technical consultant for
the organizations, who made headlines by first reporting Comcast's
throttling of BitTorrent applications.
NebuAd has announced partnerships with Charter Communications, WOW, Embarq,
Broadstripe, CenturyTel, Metro Provider and other ISPs. NebuAd pays ISPs
to install monitoring boxes on their networks. Charter, the nation's
fourth-largest cable provider, was scheduled to be begin testing NebuAd on June
15 but postponed the trials after a U.S. House Committee questioned the privacy
implications of the monitoring system.
"This report shows that NebuAd's Internet wiretapping is highly
questionable," Free Press General Counsel Marvin Ammori said in a
statement. "Phone and cable companies should press pause on NebuAd and any
similar venture until consumers and members of Congress can address the serious
concerns raised by this report."
In May, Reps. Ed Markey and Joe Barton, the majority and ranking members of
the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, wrote
to Charter Communications President and CEO Neil Smit asking him to stop
NebuAd testing until the subcommittee has had time to review the program.
"Any service to which a subscriber does not affirmatively subscribe and
that can result in the collection of information about the Web-related habits
and interests of a subscriber, or a subscriber's use of the operator's services
... without the 'prior written consent or electronic consent of the subscriber'
raises substantial questions related to [privacy]," Markey and Barton
NebuAd allows users to opt out of the customized ads program but not online
"NebuAd breaks the rules of acceptable behavior
on the Internet," Topolski wrote. "It monitors what you do and see on
the Internet, it breaks in and changes the contents of your private
communications, it keeps track of what you've done, and if you even know that
it's happening, it is impossible to opt out of it."