Saturday, April 05, 2008

ICO statement on Phorm

The Information Commissioner's Office has issued a statement on Phorm.

"“The ICO has received a number of queries concerning the recent announcement by Phorm that 3 major UK Internet Service Providers have agreed to allow them to use technology, developed by Phorm, to present adverts to their customers based on the nature of the websites they visit.

“Understandably, this has provoked considerable public concern. We have had detailed discussions with Phorm. They assure us that their system does not allow the retention of individual profiles of sites visited and adverts presented, and that they hold no personally identifiable information on web users. Indeed, Phorm assert that their system has been designed specifically to allow the appropriate targeting of adverts whilst rigorously protecting the privacy of web users. They clearly recognise the need to address the concerns raised by a number of individuals and organisations including the Open Rights Group. We welcome the efforts they are making to engage with sceptical technical experts and believe that it is only by allowing their technology to be subject to detailed scrutiny by independent technical experts that they will be able to prove their assertions regarding privacy. The ICO strongly supports the use of technology in ways which enhance rather than intrude upon privacy, and plans to produce a report on “Privacy by Design” later this year.

“We understand that the technology is not yet in use and that BT intends to run a trial involving around 10,000 broadband users later this month. We have spoken to BT about this trial and they have made clear that unless customers positively opt in to the trial their web browsing will not be monitored in order to deliver adverts. BT has also stated that the system does not store personally identifiable information, URLs, IP addresses or retain browsing histories and that search information is deleted almost immediately, and is not retrievable.

“We will continue to maintain close contact with Phorm and BT throughout the trial. Clearly the trial should reveal whether this is a service that web users want, whether it is privacy friendly and that users are comfortable with the privacy safeguards put in place by Phorm.”

For all media enquires, please contact the ICO press office on 0207 025 7580.
For all general enquires, please contact the ICO customer service team on 08456 306060."

In the absence of evidence to the contrary they are giving the company the benefit of the doubt on their claims of respecting Internet users' privacy but are keeping a watching brief on developments.

Richard Clayton at Cambridge University who has now had the opportunity to examine Phorm technology in detail remains concerned:

"Overall, I learnt nothing about the Phorm system that caused me to change my view that the system performs illegal interception as defined by s1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

Phorm argue, with some justification, that their system does not permit them to identify individuals and that they meet and exceed all necessary Data Protection regulations — producing a system that is superior to other advertising platforms that profile Internet users.

Mayhap, but this is to mix up data protection and privacy.

The latter to me includes the important notion that other people, even people I’ll never meet and who will never meet me, don’t get to know what I do, they don’t get to learn what I’m interested in, and they don’t get to assume that targeting their advertisements will be welcomed.

If I spend my time checking out the details of a surprise visit to Spain, I don’t want the person I’m taking with me to glance at my laptop screen and see that its covered with travel adverts, mix up cause and effect, and think — even just for a moment — that it wasn’t my idea first!

Phorm says that of course I can opt out — and I will — but just because nothing bad happens to me doesn’t mean that the deploying the system is acceptable.

Phorm assumes that their system “anonymises” and therefore cannot possibly do anyone any harm; they assume that their processing is generic and so it cannot be interception; they assume that their business processes gives them the right to impersonate trusted websites and add tracking cookies under an assumed name; and they assume that if only people understood all the technical details they’d be happy.

Well now’s your chance to see all these technical details for yourself — I have, and I’m still not happy at all."

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