The Phorm Phurore – Accessing User Browsing History to Serve Up Targetted Ads
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The controversial online advertising firm Phorm (pronounced “form”) has, for much of this year, been in the middle of a maelstrom of criticism over its plans to serve up ads specific to the user’s browsing history. Yet to go live, Phorm continues to sign up ISPs, mostly in the UK where their ISP partners cover 70% of the UK broadband market. Their early access trials, though, have been contentious, and the debate is far from over. How do you feel about having someone access your browsing history, the better to serve you relevant advertising? The good news, for savvy users, is that it can be blocked at the user’s browser by permanently blocking cookies from the domain www.webwise.net.

The Phorm ad-serving technology works by observing and analyzing the web traffic generated during a user’s time online. When the user later visits a web site that’s partnered with Phorm, Phorm will slip onto the web site targeted ads that relate to the user’s previous viewing. Advocates for online privacy, having scrutinized the system, are expressing great concern about web tracking, access to personalized electronic data, and the unwarranted interception of data transmission.


After discussions with Phorm, one noted security research expert, Dr. Richard Clayton from the University of Cambridge and treasurer of the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), expressed his opinion that the technology was designed to break UK laws on the unwarranted interception of data. Nicholas Bohm, also of FIPR, went further, branding the early access trials held with British Telecom users “illegal,” hinging on the fact that users were not told of the details behind the trial and the data that would be accessed. Also unsettling the online community is Phorm’s history, as 121media, and their background in the world of ad-ware, something that many would like to see banned.

Complicating the issues at hand are the ISP’s deployment plans, as both Virgin and British Telecom are intending to make the service active by default, unless the user actively opts out. There’s disagreement as to whether merely informing users about the service and telling them that it is active forms the “valid, informed consent” required under British law. A third British ISP, Carphone Warehouse, has stated that they’ll require users to opt in.

Data protection laws in the United Kingdom and European Union are more stringent than those in the United States. As an example, consider that recently the US Department of Homeland Security’s requests for passenger information was jeopardizing travel between Europe and the US because the US requested information from the airlines that the European Parliament determined violated the privacy of passengers.

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Under a stream of criticism, Phorm is fighting back, submitting to independent auditing and review (Ernst & Young and 80/20 Thinking), and holding meetings with security researchers and government departments. The result is that many security companies are taking a “wait and see” approach, preferring to see the system live and in action before deciding if it should be blocked outright or permitted, and under which circumstances the latter course of action should be chosen. The good news, for savvy users, is that it can be blocked at the user’s browser by permanently blocking cookies from the domain www.webwise.net.

So which is it – a useful capability, secure and safe, offering you targeted and timely ads, or a web-snooping big brother-ish service endangering your online data?

No Paywall Here!
The Internet Patrol is and always has been free. We don't hide our articles behind a paywall, or restrict the number of articles you can read in a month if you don't give us money. That said, it does cost us money to run the site, so if something you read here was helpful or useful, won't you consider donating something to help keep the Internet Patrol free?
Click for amount options
Other Amount:
What info did you find here today?:

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