The technology came to light when it was chosen as one of 40 technologies funded this year by the Scottish Enterprise, Scotland's economic development agency. The University of Strathclyde received the award for an undisclosed sum Thursday.
Dr. Lykourgos Petropoulakis, who is heading the 18-month research project, declined to comment on the technology, calling it "highly classified" information.
Web surveillance software has drawn intense interest from consumer advocates, who fear the interactive nature of the Internet can provide unprecedented power for governments, corporations and individuals to trample people's privacy. Several monitoring systems have been developed for use by law enforcement agencies that remain cloaked in secrecy, ostensibly due to security concerns.
The FBI has battled privacy groups seeking information on its DCS1000 Web monitoring technology, also known as Carnivore, which is installed on systems run by Internet service providers. The European Union, meanwhile, has lobbed espionage charges at the U.S. government and some of its allies over an alleged surveillance system known as Echelon, which incorporates satellite and undersea cable wiretaps, according to an EU investigation.
"Technology like this, once it's spread around, means people can be tracked from site to site," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Whatever (the Scottish Enterprise) is doing, this is part of a long-standing practice by governments to fund the development of spying technology or, more generally, technology that facilitates law enforcement and national security."
The Scottish Enterprise called the technology being developed by Petropoulakis' team a "breakthrough," outpacing any other technology on the market by allowing a more detailed profile of a Web user's activity.
According to a statement, the technology traces Internet use via "sensors" rather than cookies, or bits of code that sit on computer hard drives that have long been used by Web sites to monitor people's travels on the Web. The technology can be operated on any Web server and can monitor Internet use in real time. In addition, the software can block access to sites, e-mails and documents.
The Scottish Enterprise added that the technology might find legitimate uses from government, education and commercial organizations as well as Web marketers. Possible uses under consideration, it said, include monitoring of employee Web surfing in the workplace and monitoring of children's Web use by parents.
The agency added, however, that it cannot be used without the explicit consent of the Web user. The Scottish Enterprise said that in conjunction with the development of the technology, appropriate safeguards will be created to prevent misuse.
Details of the technology remain scarce, but some security and privacy advocates said they question its novelty.
"If there's no software installed on the user's computer, then there's nothing new here in the sense that you can't track people anymore than what the Web protocols already allow you to do," said independent Internet security consultant Richard Smith. "All these technologies (such as cookies and Web bugs) have been around for a long time."
A representative for the Scottish Enterprise said the University of Strathclyde was selected along with nearly 40 other recipients to receive the award, which totaled $8.78 million (6 million pounds). The Proof of Concept awards are given to projects that the Scottish Enterprise sees as being commercially viable once the research period is over.
"All we do is promote ideas and try to get them onto the market for the benefit of Scottish companies and Scottish universities," said a representative for the Scottish Enterprise. "We play a facilitating role by finding good ideas and trying to commercialize them and provide money for the process."