Who is Phorm anyway?
Phorm is an internet marketing company. They make money by selling advertising on web pages to various companies through their brokerage which they call the Open Internet Exchange (OIX). You can find out more about Phorm and the OIX from their website (http://www.phorm.com) but beware of the marketing-speak!
What’s so different about that, google has been doing it for years!
Google’s advertising relies solely on Google’s own database to ‘target’ it’s adverts. It does this based on the content of the page you’re viewing, and doesn’t use any kind of browsing history unless you specifically opt-in (by creating a Google account). Phorm on the other hand targets it’s advertising based solely on your browsing history, which it collects direct from your ISP. You can opt-out of Phorm’s tracking by allowing a cookie to be set on your PC.
So you’re saying I’m automatically opted in?
Yes. If your ISP is Virgin Media, BT or Talk Talk, your browsing details WILL be sent to Phorm by default, you will require to disable the Phorm system by opting out on every browser that uses your network connection. There is no way to ‘globaly opt out’ of the Phorm system.
So what do they actually see?
Phorm doesn’t just see the URL of every page you visit, they see the entire content of every single web page (with the exception of encrypted pages). That means they can read your mail if you use most types of webmail, view all the posts you make or read on web forums, obtain the content of most webforms you complete, in fact just about anything you do on the web that is not encrypted can be hoovered up by Phorm. Phorm claim they do not store this information for more than 14 days.
What do they store?
According to their website, Phorm store an aggregate history of your browsing, not a detailed history of each page you visit. Even so, such a history would reveal considerable detail about your browsing and potentially about your personal life.
Can this history be tied to my identity?
Phorm claim they do not store any personally identifiable information (including IP addresses) or interface with any ISP systems that would allow them to identify you, however they assign each user a unique ‘tracking ID’ which relates directly to their browsing profile. If someone connected the ID to any piece of personally identifying information your browsing history would no longer be anonymous.
I heard Phorm was associated with a rootkit, is that true?
Phorm is not, however their predecessor company (121 Media) was. This has been confirmed by Phorm’s current CEO, who was also involved with 121 Media.
Someone said Phorm was linked to Russia, is it true?
Yes, there is a clear link between Phorm and Russia. Phorm employ Russian programmers (“The development team for the new software was recruited from Moscow’s elite Lebedev Institute of Precision Mechanics and Computer Engineering, a vital part of of the Cold War spying effort and still a centre for developing Russia’s ‘national security’ computer systems.” – Mail on Sunday article) and have been indirectly linked to the Russian security services by a Mail on Sunday article (full article is here)
It had to happen.
Given that governments everywhere want access to all your browsing habbits, it was inevitable that someone, somewhere would say, “but we can make money out of this!”.
and here is an update:
Web creator rejects net tracking
By Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent, BBC News
The creator of the web has said consumers need to be protected against systems which can track their activity on the internet.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee told BBC News he would change his internet provider if it introduced such a system.
Plans by leading internet providers to use Phorm, a company which tracks web activity to create personalised adverts, have sparked controversy.
Sir Tim said he did not want his ISP to track which websites he visited.
“I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer that that’s not going to get to my insurance company and I’m going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by 5% because they’ve figured I’m looking at those books,” he said.
Sir Tim said his data and web history belonged to him.
He said: “It’s mine – you can’t have it. If you want to use it for something, then you have to negotiate with me. I have to agree, I have to understand what I’m getting in return.”
Phorm has said its system offers security benefits which will warn users about potential phishing sites – websites which attempt to con users into handing over personal data.
Kent Ertugrul, chief executive, of Phorm, told BBC News: “We have not had the chance to describe to Tim Berners-Lee how the system works and we look forward to doing that.
“We believe Phorm makes the internet a more vibrant and interesting place. Phorm protects personal privacy and unlike the hundreds of other cookies on your PC, it comes with an on/off switch.”
The advertising system created by Phorm highlights a growing trend for online advertising tools – using personal data and web habits to target advertising.
Social network Facebook was widely criticised when it attempted to introduce an ad system, called Beacon, which leveraged people’s habits on and off the site in order to provide personal ads.
The company was forced to give customers a universal opt out after negative coverage in the media.
Sir Tim added: “I myself feel that it is very important that my ISP supplies internet to my house like the water company supplies water to my house. It supplies connectivity with no strings attached. My ISP doesn’t control which websites I go to, it doesn’t monitor which websites I go to.”
Talk Talk has said its customers would have to opt in to use Phorm, while the two other companies which have signed up – BT and Virgin – are still considering both opt in or opt out options.
Sir Tim said he supported an opt-in system.
“I think consumers rights in this are very important. We haven’t seen the results of these systems being used.”
Privacy campaigners have questioned the legality of ISPs intercepting their customers’ web-surfing habits.
But the Home Office in the UK has drawn up guidance which suggests the ISPs will conform with the law if customers have given consent.
Sir Tim also said the spread of social networks like Facebook and MySpace was a good example of increasing involvement in the web. But he had a warning for young people about putting personal data on these sites.
“Imagine that everything you are typing is being read by the person you are applying to for your first job. Imagine that it’s all going to be seen by your parents and your grandparents and your grandchildren as well.”
But he said he had tried out several of the sites, and thought they might in the end be even more popular with the elderly than with young people.
Sir Tim was on a short visit to Britain from his base at MIT in Boston, during which he met government ministers, academics and major corporations, to promote a new subject, Web Science.
This is a multi-disciplinary effort to study the web and try to guide its future. Sir Tim explained that there were now more web pages than there are neurons in the human brain, yet the shape and growth of the web were still not properly understood.
“We should look out for snags in the future,” he said, pointing to the way email had been swamped by spam as an example of how things could go wrong. “Things can change so fast on the internet.”
But he promised that what web scientists would produce over the coming years “will blow our minds”.
At last, SOMEONE standing up for what is right.