UK ISP Trio To Farm Personal Data

There are faint rumblings in the UK techie-sphere concerning a handful of the larger UK Internet service provider’s (ISP’s) signing up to a service called Phorm which will sit between the user and their ISP , in this case BT, Talk Talk and Virgin Media customers.

Net bunny

All Your Data Belongs To Me
Basically the service (in this case the service pays the ISP’s) works as a non transparent proxy and harvests your usage data, websites visited etc in order for more relevant adverts to be targeted at the user when they visit a Phorm partner’s web-site. The hoo ha over Phorm is because the company contains people previously known for placing spyware directly on computers using rootkit technology and user worries over their said ability to anonymise personal data.

Who Are You?
The company says it will ‘anonymise’ the data but really it’s based on your IP address which the EU is tentatively regarding as your personal data.Either way they need to just assign another number to your IP address in order to target their adverts.

No Opt Out?
Opt outs may or may not become available but it’s rumoured that Virgin Media may have already put the system in place as it moved away from the use of transparent proxies a while ago.Clearing cookies will not be of any benefit as a means to avoid the system and only using an anonymous proxy which will slow your surfing speed down considerably or using a true remote computer desktop would let you escape the trawling of your Internet usage bar the unlikely opportunity to opt out of the system.

The ISP’s will claim that Phorm will add a layer of user security in that it offers anti-phishing technology and even, curiously anti spyware filtering (other than their own of course) but the bottom line for many people is that their ISP is making money out of their personal data without being upfront with customers about this.

The Way Of The World?
Whilst it’s naive to assume that you can totally anonymise yourself on the Internet as many free Internet services support themselves via targeted advertising (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft ,social networks etc) in the same way that supermarket and shop loyalty cards are used to keep a personalised record of your shopping habits, it is right to be concerned about who your ISP (to whom you are already paying a monthly fee) is allowing to trawl your Internet usage data and whether they have a track record on keeping that information secure.

Everyone wants a slice of the Internet advertising pie. Maybe some are being a bit more aggressive and unethical in earning their own slice than others.

An anti Phorm website

Update: BBC news discusses Phorm

Further Update: I attended an online web chat with Phorm’s CEO Kent Ertugrul and Senior vice president of technology Marc Burgess in which they attempted to allay the fears of the main technical and sceptical attendees. Seemingly an option to opt out will become available. This opt out will last for 2 years unless you block the cookie of the domain webwise.net in which case the opt out will be permanent (Interestingly BT have been saying a user would need to block oix.net).

Much was made of the anti-phishing benefits of Phorm’s webwise system by the CEO and questions were asked concerning whether a user who has opted out would still have their data pass through Phorm’s servers which it was stated that they would not. Browsing information would be mirrored for analysis (presumably to prevent a slow down in browsing that an ‘on-the-fly- analysis would cause). The continuing area of contention for critics seemed to be around how the system both tracks and identifies the users browsing preferences for advertising target purposes whilst still assuring users that no personal data is retained and is anonymised.

Photo by edge714 under this creative commons license


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