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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Who is watching?

This article on Comment is Free by Zoe Margolis highlights the latest developments that threaten our internet privacy. In particular the fact that the UK's three biggest internet service providers - BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk, who between them have more than 10 million customers - have recently signed a deal with Phorm to categorise all of our web-surfing habits in order to target online ads at us:

The essence of the Phorm scheme is straightforward. It will have equipment at ISPs that will track your activities on port 80 (used for the web) - though not to secure websites. With each site you visit it will capture the URL (and, for a search engine, the search terms too) plus enough of the header data from the page to "categorise" it into one of a number of areas. Anything longer than a three-digit number is thrown away. Your IP address is not captured, but a cookie with a unique number is set on your browser when you start using it, which persists into the future.

The data about what websites you tend to visit is then categorised to generate a profile. When you then visit a page whose adverts are sourced from the Open internet Exchange - set up by Phorm - your browser will see adverts targeted to your profile. (Adult, gambling, political, drugs and smoking-related adverts are not allowed.) Your browsing history is not retained; instead the profile for the cookie is refined as it "sees" more of your browsing. Sites that join OIX are told they will get a better per-click payment than with other services.

Although Phorm has not been launched yet it has been tested in secret by BT, as one user discovered. Zoe Margolis points out that, while Phorm might look innocuous now, its use in the future may be more about gathering personal web viewing data, for legal or other purposes, rather than for targeted advertising.
It may actually be illegal. Its been discussed at great length on ukcrypto.

There's been quite a backlash already and it looks to get bigger with more publicity.
Hi Tristan
I work on behalf of Phorm here in the UK. In response to the accusation that Phorm may be illegal, as you would expect we have a pretty robust response.

Webwise is not illegal - the claims that it 'maybe' stem from an opinion put forward by the FIPR. The law is at present untested and as you would expect, we disagree with their view. The FIPR analysis of the Webwise technology is certainly inaccurate.

Phorm, alongside its ISP partners is confident that Webwise complies fully with all applicable UK laws. We have gone to some lengths to ensure this - we are in dialogue with the Information Commissioners Office, we have oversight provided by Ernst & Young (not to mention the ISPs themselves) and we are even opening up our source code to independent inspection.

You can ask questions about the system and get loads more information by visiting http://blog.webwise.com or www.webwise.com or www.phorm.com
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