Tuesday, 14 April 2009

A brief history of Phorm

Have you heard of Phorm? If you read The Register online newspaper then you almost certainly have. If not then you might have missed it.

Phorm is an advertising targeting technology that is planned to serve ads on participating websites based on your web browsing habits. It does this by recording which sites you've visited so that it can tell what kind of products you might like.

That sounded quite innocuous, so let's say it again. Phorm would record which sites you've visited. All of them. And then serve you ads. Well probably you - unless somebody else is using your PC at the time. You and I are obviously fine, upstanding citizens with no reason to visit the darker sides of the web, but even so, would you be happy with this data being collected? Especially when recent experience has shown that it could get sold to the highest bidder. £10k for David Cameron's web history? If you're the News of the World, that's a bargain.
Oh and Phorm used to be called 121Media and they made spyware - still trust them with that data?

Phorm ran two trials on BT broadband in 2006 and 2007, profiling a sample of users' web activity without asking permission, and these trials have caused a bit of a fuss because they may have been illegal. The trials may have constituted an illegal wiretap under RIPA and could also contravene EU law.

I'm not going to going go into the details of the case, or why it may be illegal. Partly because it wouldn't be fair to rip off loads of Register reporting when they've been like a dog with a bone over this and partly because I can't afford lawyers if I misplace a sentence. Read the Register articles - they're very good.

All I can say is I'll be watching the EU action as it progresses and if what BT and Phorm have done does turn out to be illegal, then I hope they have the book thrown at them. Along with the Police and the Information Commissioners Office who - following complaints from the public - have flatly refused to get involved.

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