Nov 09

(Brisbane Times) — Politicians are letting foreign-owned companies covertly gather information about voters.

The websites of Barry O’Farrell, Kristina Keneally, Tony Abbott and the Greens plant spying devices on visitors’ computers, which can track them as they browse the internet.

Information gathered about a user’s online behaviour can be used to build detailed profiles to help target advertisements – a practice many believe is a threat to privacy.

Online tracking is done mainly by cookies (text files) and beacons (invisible images).

Inside the cookie monster – trading your online data for profits

The devices allow a third-party company to see which elements of a page the user has clicked on, potentially identifying information held in the URL, such as an email address.

A tracking device, owned by Yahoo! and dated to expire in 2037, was planted on this website’s test computer when visiting the website of the federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

The site of the Premier, Kristina Keneally, placed devices owned by ShareThis, a company that collects information about online habits.

All four websites planted YouTube cookies, even though this website’s computer did not play any videos.

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Apr 06

BT tested secret “spyware” on tens of thousands of its broadband customers without their knowledge, it admitted yesterday.

It carried out covert trials of a system which monitors every internet page a user visits.

Companies can exploit such data to target users with tailored online advertisements.

An investigation into the affair has been started by the Information Commissioner, the personal data watchdog.

Privacy campaigners reacted with horror, accusing BT of illegal interception on a huge scale. Yesterday, the company was forced to admit that it had monitored the web browsing habits of 36,000 customers.

The scandal came to light only after some customers stumbled across tell-tale signs of spying. At first, they were wrongly told a software virus was to blame.

BT carried out undercover trials of a system which records every website a customer visits (below)

Executives insisted they had not broken the law and said no “personally identifiable information” had been shared or divulged.

BT said it randomly chose 36,000 broadband users for a “small-scale technical trial” in 2006 and 2007.

The monitoring system, developed by U.S. software company Phorm, accesses information from a computer.

It then scans every website a customer visits, silently checking for keywords and building up a unique picture of their interests.

If a user searches online to buy a holiday or expensive TV, for example, or looks for internet dating services or advice on weight loss, the Phorm system will add all the information to their file.

One BT customer who spotted unexplained problems with his computer was told repeatedly by BT helpdesk staff that a virus was to blame.

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