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Upromise Savings -- At What Cost?

January 21, 2010 - Updated, January 25, 2010


Upromise touts opportunities for college savings. When members shop at participating online merchants, dine at participating restaurants, or purchase selected products at retail stores, Upromise collects commissions which fund college savings accounts.

Unfortunately, the Upromise Toolbar also tracks users' behavior in excruciating detail. In my testing, when a user checked an innocuously-labeled box promising "Personalized Offers," the Upromise Toolbar tracked and transmitted my every page-view, every search, and every click, along with many entries into web forms. Remarkably, these transmissions included full credit card numbers -- grabbed out of merchants' HTTPS (SSL) secure communications, yet transmitted by Upromise in plain text, readable by anyone using a network monitor or other recording system.

Proof of the Specific Transmissions

I began by running a search at Google. The Upromise toolbar transmissions reported the full URL I requested, including my search provider (yellow) and my full search keywords (green).

POST /fast-cgi/ClickServer HTTP/1.0
User-Agent: upromise/3195/3195/UP23806818/0012
Host: dcs.consumerinput.com
Content-Length: 274
Connection: Keep-Alive

md5=ee593c14f70c1b7f8b3341a91c3e3639&ts=1264045792.140&bua=N%2FA&meth=get&eid=300&fid=NULL&bin=24af1f0
&refererHeader=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Egoogle%2Ecom%2F&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Egoogle%2Ecom%2Fsearch%3Fhl%3D
en%26source%3Dhp%26q%3Di%2Bfeel%2Bsick%26aq%3Df%26aql%26aqi%3Dg10%26oq

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Thu, 21 Jan 2010 03:49:51 GMT
Server: Apache/2.2.3 (Debian) mod_python/3.3.1 Python/2.5.1 mod_ssl/2.2.3 OpenSSL/0.9.8c
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8

<capture>
<md5>ee593c14f70c1b7f8b3341a91c3e3639</md5>
<version>1.0</version>
</capture>

I clicked a result -- a page on Wikipedia. Transmissions included the full URL of my request (blue) as well as the web search provider (yellow) and keywords (green) that had referred me (red) to this site.

POST /fast-cgi/ClickServer HTTP/1.0
User-Agent: upromise/3195/3195/UP23806818/0012
Host: dcs.consumerinput.com
Content-Length: 304
Connection: Keep-Alive

md5=ee7e3174db149d0d97f51b10db9ac58d&ts=1264045931.921&bua=N%2FA&meth=get&eid=300&fid=NULL&bin=24af1f0
&refererHeader=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Egoogle%2Ecom%2Fsearch%3Fhl%3Den%26source%3Dhp%26q%3Di%2Bfeel%2Bsick%
26aq%3Df%26aql%3D%26aqi%3Dg10%26oq%3D&url=http%3A%2F%2Fen%2Ewikipedia%2Eorg%2Fwiki%2FI%5FFeel%5FSick

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Thu, 21 Jan 2010 03:52:11 GMT
Server: Apache/2.2.3 (Debian) mod_python/3.3.1 Python/2.5.1 mod_ssl/2.2.3 OpenSSL/0.9.8c
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8

<capture>
<md5>ee7e3174db149d0d97f51b10db9ac58d</md5>
<version>1.0</version>
</capture>

I browsed onwards to Buy.com (grey), where I added an item to my shopping cart and proceeded to checkout. When prompted, I entered a (made-up) credit card number. Buy.com appropriately secured the card number with HTTPS encryption. But, remarkably, Upromise extracted and transmitted the full sixteen-digit card number (yellow) -- as well as my (also fictitious) CVV code (green), and expiration date (blue).

POST /fast-cgi/ClickServer HTTP/1.0
User-Agent: upromise/3195/3195/UP23806818/0012
Host: dcs.consumerinput.com
Content-Length: 1936
Connection: Keep-Alive

md5=352732ac9ee0d9e970f3c65d62ed03b1&ts=1264046115.702&bua=N%2FA&meth=post&eid=300&fid=NULL&bin=24af1f0
&refererHeader=https%3A%2F%2Fssl%2Ebuy%2Ecom%2FCO%2FCheckout%2FpaymentOptions%2Easpx&url=https%3A%2F%2F
ssl%2Ebuy%2Ecom%2FCO%2FCheckout%2FpaymentOptions%2Easpx%3F%5F%5FEVENTTARGET%26%5F%5FEVENTARGUMENT%26%5F
%5FVIEWSTATE%3D%2FwEPDwUKMTQ1MjY3MzM2Mw9kFgQCAw9kFgQCAQ8PFgIeCEltYWdlVXJsBV1odHRwczovL2EyNDguZS5ha2FtYW
kubmV0L2YvMjQ4Lzg0NS8xMGgvaW1hZ2VzLmJ1eS5jb20vYnV5X2Fzc2V0cy92Ni9oZWFkZXIvMjAwNi9idXlfbG9nby5naWZkZAICD
w8WAh8ABXdodHRwczovL2EyNDguZS5ha2FtYWkubmV0L2YvMjQ4Lzg0NS8xMGgvaW1hZ2VzLmJ1eS5jb20vYnV5X2Fzc2V0cy92Ni9j
b3JwL2NoZWNrb3V0X3Byb2Nlc3MvY2hlY2tvdXRfM19wYXltZW50X2dyZWVuLmdpZmRkAgUPZBYQAgUPZBYCZg9kFgRmDw8WBB8ABVN
odHRwczovL2EyNDguZS5ha2FtYWkubmV0L2YvMjQ4Lzg0NS8xMGgvaW1hZ2VzLmJ1eS5jb20vYnV5X2Fzc2V0cy9jcy9pbWFnZXMvYm
1sLmdpZh4HVmlzaWJsZWdkZAIBDw8WAh8ABWNodHRwczovL2EyNDguZS5ha2FtYWkubmV0L2YvMjQ4Lzg0NS8xMGgvaW1hZ2VzLmJ1e
S5jb20vYnV5X2Fzc2V0cy9idXR0b25zLzIwMDgvYnV0dG9uX2NvbnRpbnVlMi5naWZkZAIHD2QWAmYPZBYKAgUPEA9kFgIeB29uY2xp
Y2sFKFNldFVuaXF1ZVJhZGlvQnV0dG9uKCdyZG9QYXltZW50cycsdGhpcylkZGQCBw8QD2QWAh4Ib25DaGFuZ2UFG2phdmFzY3JpcHQ
6c2hvd0hpZGVDQyh0aGlzKWRkZAIJDw9kFgIfAgUfc3dpdGNoUmFkaW8oJ3Jkb05ld0NyZWRpdENhcmQnKWQCDQ8QZA8WDWYCAQICAg
MCBAIFAgYCBwIIAgkCCgILAgwWDRAFBDIwMTAFBDIwMTBnEAUEMjAxMQUEMjAxMWcQBQQyMDEyBQQyMDEyZxAFBD%2A%2A%2A%2A%7B
1422%7D%26%5F%5FEVENTVALIDATION%3D%2FwEWKQLNvonpCgKYm5r9BALB5eOPBALy2ZqvCQLv2ZqvCQLq2ZqvCQLu2ZqvCQLr2ba
vCQL28Nu2CwLDqZ7xDALDqZrxDALDqabxDALDqaLxDALDqa7xDALDqarxDALDqbbxDALDqfLyDALDqf7yDALcqZLxDALcqZ7xDALcqZ
rxDALrtZj9AgLrtaSgCQLrtbAHAuu13OoIAuu16NEPAuu19LQGAuu1gJgNAuu1rP8FAuu1%2BJcHAuu1hPsPAvai%2BtMMAvaihrcDA
vaikpoKAt7CxckKAsqi76gMAva5sdkEAvLqvYoEAoaI4c0FArr3pYIHApibrtgNijCSRDzGArpVaF4m3bbOLp8yvUM%3D%26rdoPaym
ents%3DrdoNewCreditCard%26lstCCType%3D9%26txtNewCCNumber%3D4412124112341234%26lstNewCCMonth%3D01%26lstN
ewCCYear%3D2010%26txtNewCVV2%3D222%26btnContinue2%2Ex%3D18%26btnContinue2%2Ey%3D19

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Thu, 21 Jan 2010 03:55:15 GMT
Server: Apache/2.2.3 (Debian) mod_python/3.3.1 Python/2.5.1 mod_ssl/2.2.3 OpenSSL/0.9.8c
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8

<capture>
<md5>352732ac9ee0d9e970f3c65d62ed03b1</md5>
<version>1.0</version>
</capture>

Upromise also transmitted my email address. For example, when I logged into Restaurant.com, Upromise's transmission included my email (yellow):

POST /fast-cgi/ClickServer HTTP/1.0
User-Agent: upromise/3195/3195/UP23806818/0012
Host: dcs.consumerinput.com
Content-Length: 378
Connection: Keep-Alive

md5=26830cfab132bb3122fcf40d8cd0f2f9&ts=1264049936.327&bua=N%2FA&meth=post&eid=303&fid=NULL&bin=24af1f0
&refererHeader=&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Erestaurant%2Ecom%2Fregister%2Dlogin%2Easp%3Fpurchasestatus%3DRE
GISTER%2DLOGIN%26hdnButton%3DSignin%26txtMemberSignin%3Dedelman%40pobox%2Ecom%26radio%5Fcust%3Dcustomer
%5Fexisting%26txtMemberPassword...

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Thu, 21 Jan 2010 04:58:56 GMT
Server: Apache/2.2.3 (Debian) mod_python/3.3.1 Python/2.5.1 mod_ssl/2.2.3 OpenSSL/0.9.8c
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8

<capture>
<md5>26830cfab132bb3122fcf40d8cd0f2f9</md5>
<version>1.0</version>
</capture>

All the preceding transmission were made over my ordinary Internet connection just as shown above. In particular, these transmissions were sent in plain text -- without encryption or encoding of any kind. Any computer with a network monitor (including, for users connected by Wi-Fi, any nearby wireless user) could easily read these communications. With no additional hardware or software, a nearby listener could thereby obtain, e.g., users' full credit card numbers -- even though merchants used HTTPS security to attempt to keep those numbers confidential.

The Destination of Upromise's Transmissions: Compete, Inc.

As shown in the "host:" header of each of the preceding communications, transmissions flow to the consumerinput.com domain. Whois reports that this domain is registered to Boston, MA traffic-monitoring service Compete, Inc. Compete's site promises clients access to "detailed behavioral data," and Compete says more than 2 million U.S. Internet users "have given [Compete] permission to analyze the web pages they visit."

Upromise's Disclosures Misrepresent Data Collection and Fail to Obtain Consumer Consent

Upromise's installation sequence does not obtain users' permission for this detailed and intrusive tracking. Quite the contrary: Numerous Upromise screens discuss privacy, and they all fail to mention the detailed information Upromise actually transmits.

The Upromise toolbar installation page touts the toolbar's purported benefits at length, but mentions no privacy implications whatsoever.

If a user clicks the prominent button to begin the toolbar installation, the next screen presents a 1,354-word license agreement that fills 22 on-screen pages and offers no mechanism to enlarge, maximize, print, save, or search the lengthy text. But even if a user did read the license, the user would receive no notice of detailed tracking. Meanwhile, the lower on-screen box describes a "Personalized Offers" feature, which is labeled as causing "information about [a user's] online activity [to be] collected and used to provide college savings opportunities" But that screen nowhere admits collecting users' email addresses or credit card numbers. Nor would a user rightly expect that "information about ... online activity" means a full log of every search and every page-view across the entire web.

The install sequence does link to Upromise's privacy policy. But this page also fails to admit the detailed tracking Upromise performs. Indeed, the privacy policy promises that Personalized Offers data collection will be "anonymous" -- when in fact the transmissions include email addresses and credit card numbers. The privacy policy then claims that any collection of personal information is "inadvertent" and that such information is collected only "potentially." But I found that the information transmissions described above were standard and ongoing.

The privacy policy also limits Upromise's sharing of information with third parties, claiming that such sharing will include only "non-personally identifiable data." But I found that Upromise was sharing highly sensitive personal information, including email addresses and credit card numbers.

In addition, Upromise's data transmissions contradict representation in Upromise's FAQ. The top entry in the FAQ promises that Upromise "has implemented security systems designed to keep [users'] information safe." But transmitting credit card numbers in cleartext is reckless and ill-advised -- specifically contrary to standard Payment Card Industry (PCI) rules, and the opposite of "safe." Indeed, in an ironic twist, Upromise's FAQ goes on to discuss at great length the benefits of SSL encryption -- benefits of course lacking when Upromise transmits users' credit card numbers without such encryption.

The Upromise toolbar offers an Options screen which again makes no mention of key data transmissions. The screen admits collecting "information about the web sites you visit." But it says nothing of collecting email addresses, credit card numbers, and more.

The Scope and Solution

The transmissions at issue affect only those users who agree to run Upromise's Personalized Offers system. But until last week, that option was set as the default upon new Upromise toolbar installations -- inviting users to initiate these transmissions without a second look.

Even if Upromise ceased the most outrageous transmissions detailed above, Upromise's installation disclosures would still give ample basis for concern. To describe tracking, transmitting, and analyzing a user's every page-view and every search, Upromise's install screen euphemistically mentions that its "service provider may use non-personally identifiable information about your online activity." This admission appears below a lengthy EULA, under a heading irrelevantly labeled "Personalized Offers" -- doing little to draw users' attention to the serious implications of Personalized Offers. I don't see why Upromise users would ever want to accept this detailed tracking: It's entirely unrelated to the college savings that draws users to the Upromise site. But if Upromise is to keep this function, users deserve a clear, precise, and well-labeled statement of exactly what they're getting into.

Upromise's multi-faceted business raises other concerns that also deserve a critical look. The implications for affiliate merchants are particularly serious -- a risk of paying affiliate commission for users already at a merchant's site. But I'll save this subject for another day.

Upromise's Response (posted: January 23, 2010)

Upromise told PC Magazine's Larry Seltzer that less than 2% of their 12 million members were affected. Though 2% of 12 million is 240,000 -- a lot!

Upromise staff also wrote to me. I replied with a few questions:

1) How long was the problem in effect?

2) How many users were affected?

3) What caused the problem?

4) I notice that the Upromise toolbar EULA has numerous firmly-worded defensive provisions. (See the entire sections captioned “Disclaimer of Warranty” and “Limitation of Liability” – purporting to disclaim responsibility for a wide variety of problems. And then see Governing Law and Arbitration for a purported limitation on what law governs and how claims may be brought.) For consumers who believe they suffered losses or harms as a result of this problem, will Upromise invoke the defensive provisions in its EULA to attempt to avoid or limit liability?

I'm particularly interested in the answer to the final question. The EULA is awfully one-sided. I appreciate Upromise confirming the serious failure I uncovered. Upromise should also accept whatever legal liability goes with this breach.

Upromise's Response to My Questions (posted: January 25, 2010)

Upromise replied to my four questions to indicate that the scope of the problem was "approximately 1% of our 12 million members." Upromise did not answer my questions about the duration of the problem, the cause of the problem, or the effect of Upromise's EULA defenses.