The Technology Behind Phorm And NebuAd: Deep Packet Inspection (DPI)

I have been talking a lot about Phorm and NebuAd’s ISP targeted advertising lately. What I have not touched on is the technology behind this ISP based targeted advertising. The technology is called Deep Packet Inspection or DPI.

Deep Packet Inspection is also the technology behind the whole Network Neutrality debates. Network neutrality is defined in Wikipedia as, “a broadband network free of restrictions on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, on the modes of communication allowed, that does not restrict content, sites, or platforms and where communication is not unreasonably degraded by other communication streams would be considered neutral by most observers.” Network neutrality advocates fear that DPI will eventually be used to privatize the Internet.

Ok so what exactly is DPI? I turn again to Wikipedia for the definition, DPI “is a form of computer network packet filtering that examines the data and/or header part of a packet as it passes an inspection point, searching for non-protocol compliance, viruses, spam, intrusions or predefined criteria to decide if the packet can pass or if it needs to be routed to a different destination, or for the purpose of collecting statistical information.” With this technology, companies like Phorm and NebuAd monitor users browsing habits based on the theory that they will serve relevant advertisements to the end user.

The DPI technology works by categorizing users interests based on their actions and matching them with advertisers who are looking to target specific types of users. For example, a user goes to a search engine types in a car name and spends time on car sites. Using DPI, a company like Phorm could then categorize this user as a car enthusiast and then target car ads to them on partner sites. According to Phorm’s COO, “As you browse, we’re able to categorize all of your Internet actions”. This is of course a bit creepy, but advertisers are taking notice.

In the UK where Phorm can target through it’s ISP partnerships 70% of the country there has been a public backlash. One interested advertiser The Guardrian backed out of a deal with Phorm due to the public outcry. The concern is that with all this tracking of user information that it could be used to identify directly identify users. Phorm and other ISP targeted networks claim the technology does not permit for personally identifiable information to be tracked. Privacy advocates and the public at this point largely disagree.

I have a few posts discussing Phorm and NebuAd which readers may be interested here, here, and here. Another great source of information is Nate Anderson’s article, Throttle me this: An Introduction to DPI.


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