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The REAL dangers of Phorm

31 Mar 2009 | 09.39 Europe/London
Controversial targeted advertising company Phorm has announced a deal with Korean Internet service provider KT. This will see the company's behavioural targeting advertising system replicated in Korea after successful trials in the UK. However, there are fears that the Phorm system infringes privacy laws and it has attracted a number of legal challenges.

In simple terms Phorm monitors and records your web browsing habits, using these to present online advertising specifically targeted at your interests. In the UK ISPs such as BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media have already signed up for the system. ISPs who sign up to the Phorm advertising program have to ask their customers if they want to opt in to the system - and those who do are periodically reminded that they are signed in. However, it still begs the question: would anyone in their right mind agree to it?

The company argues that the system is not an affront to privacy laws because only the IP number of each and every user is recorded for identification. However, there is an argument that any one user can be traced via their IP number and their identification revealed. The fact that many security software companies have confirmed that the Phorm cookie will be recognised as adware by their systems just about says it all.

Source : Brand Republic
Midnight_Voice says:
Is it my imagination, or has this article been altered since it first appeared? I certainly recall a few misstatements about Phorm that I was going to address, but the only one that's left now seems to be about what Phorm use to identify you. It's emphatically *not* your IP address, but rather some unique and arbitrary User IDentification tag instead. This is something they are absurdly proud of; but as they publish this UID in a phorged cookie for every website you visit (something they would perhaps rather you didn't know about), the link from UID to IP address is easily made by any of those websites (including of course the ones advertising to you), and so it comes to the same thing. But what *are* the real dangers of Phorm? Firstly, for the user, the utter destruction of any trust they can have that their ISP is just a simple carrier for your traffic; instead the postman is opening and reading your mail. Secondly, for the website owner, the use of all his/her carefully created content by Phorm, without a please or a thank you - in fact without even asking permission - for the benefit of Phorm's advertisers instead. The postman isn't just reading the mail from the website owner, he's noting what's being said so the postman can alerts all his/her rivals to go chasing the sale as well. Something that if a real postman did it, would be called industrial espionage. So where does the web go? All HTTPS? "There ought to be a law" I hear you saying. Well, there is, or are, not just one but four laws arguably being breached here - RIPA, DPA, Copyright, Forgery / Passing-Off. But will the authorities act, as they did in the US over the very similar NebuAd? Either in the UK, or in the EU? Please, let's hope so.
31 Mar 2009 | 17.01 Europe/London
Mark says:
Many thanks for your comments Midnight_Voice. The article was amended slightly to take into account the opt-in opt-out changes made by the Information Commissioner's Office last year, however there is still confusion and controversy regarding the system. While Phorm claim the system has no way of identifying any individual internet user, as you suggest in your comments, not everybody agrees with this stance. As for the four laws which you suggest are possibly being breached, we may see future legal challanges along these lines. Even though the system is yet to be rolled out across the UK it has caused a heated debate about user protection which needs to be resolved as soon as possible.
31 Mar 2009 | 18.02 Europe/London
Fibre1 says:
"However, it still begs the question: would anyone in their right mind agree to it?" - because I really don't care. Google offers ads based on searches and I ignore those just like any other ads. The postman analogy is weak as any branded mail makes it clear to the postman who I am corresponding with, no need to open it. While a few vocal people think this is a big deal, the vast majority just don't care.
02 Apr 2009 | 06.58 Europe/London
Eponymous Cowherd says:
Actually, Fibre1, I think you will find that a large number of people *do* care about Phorm once Phorm has been explained to them. You are misunderstanding the 'postman' analogy entirely. All you can tell by looking at 'branded' mail is who it is from. You cannot tell what it is about. If, say, you ask a local car dealership for a list of their current stock, you may well receive it in an envelope with the company's logo on it. All you can tell from that is who it is from. You can't tell what it is about ( a bill, a letter telling you a service is due, final demand, etc). What Phorm does is open that letter and see the contents. It sees the list of cars for sale. It can even tell which cars on that list you look at. While you still may not think this is a big issue for you, personally, I can assure you it is a *huge* issue for the web-shops that Phorm will be spying on as users who have agreed to Phorm browse their pages. Keeping with the postman analogy, its like the postman watching you as you open your letter from the car dealer, standing over you while you read it, noting what you look at, then *selling* that information to a competitor.
02 Apr 2009 | 09.21 Europe/London
Fibre1 says:
All it is going to do is dish up adverts based on browsing habits. The majority don't look at or care about adverts. It's an issue for privacy obsessives who will no doubt be going on about it for years to come - in the style of, and with the effectiveness of, outfits like CND and Stop the War coalition.
03 Apr 2009 | 09.21 Europe/London
Eponymous Cowherd says:
You *still* don't get it, do you Fiber1. Its *not* about privacy. Its about industrial espionage. Its about Phorm tracking the products that people look at in web shops and then serving up ads from that site's competitors.
03 Apr 2009 | 12.40 Europe/London