The phuss over Phorm

April 8, 2009

The targeted online advertising company Phorm, which has been accused of spying, breaking the law and just about everything else in the last year, has launched its latest charm offensive in its battle to prove its innocence.

The British company sparked damning headlines last year when  it signed up the three biggest Internet service providers BT, Virgin Media and Carphone Warehouse to provide adverts to Web
sites based on the surfing trends of users.

Phorm says the system is completely anonymous, does not store data on its users and will enable online publishers to make more money by showing more relevant adverts. With more interesting ads, there would also be fewer needed, they say.

Its service, which is yet to launch, has been welcomed by the media regulator and minister in charge of planning Britain’s digital future.

But its critics, who have formed Web sites, campaigns and a devoted following, say the company is “snooping” on online users and selling their surfing habits to advertising companies.

In its drive to win the PR battle, Phorm held its second “Town Hall” meeting on Tuesday evening to discuss the public’s concerns and questions.

Far from feisty, the meeting was a mostly civil affair although the top table, led by former Chancellor and non-executive director Norman Lamont, still faced many questions on how they handle the data.

The rather tall men with wires dangling from their ears, looking suspiciously like security guards, had a quiet evening.

Chief Executive Kent Ertugrul, sounding somewhat exasperated at times, painted Phorm’s opponents as a small fringe who had managed to create a lot of noise.

Phorm says customers will be given a choice as to whether they use the Webwise service and hinted that customers could be given incentives to sign up, saying reduced broadband connections or a donation to charity was being considered by the company.

They said they would gladly welcome a UN weapons “Hans Blix”-type inspector who could verify their promise of anonymity, but without that, would continue to answer as many questions as were put to them.

Would you consider using the technology to see more relevant ads or do you think Phorm is going a step too far.


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Hans Blix has already visited.Last year Dr Richard Clayton looked at the system and was not impressed. In fact he suspects it may break half a dozen laws. 4phorm.pdf

Posted by mrk456 | Report as abusive

Would I consider it personally? Never.Would I allow Phorm to process the communications between my web sites and visitors? Absolutely not.Phorm/BT Webwise is simply mass personal surveillance, mass industrial espionage, and copyright/trademark infringement.All of which would be bad enough were it not also true that they trialled this ‘adware’ in secret on tens of thousands of BT customers and the web sites they used in 2006, 2007, and 2008.People involved in conducting those covert trials must be prosecuted. And the use of DPI for surveillance must not be tolerated in this (or any other) civilised society.Once you tolerate commercial interception of web traffic, email, voice and any other method of private telecommunication will follow. At that point you have lost your right to private personal and commercial communications.That’s why it must never happen.

Posted by Pete | Report as abusive

I see that Phorm are going to “answer as many questions as are put to them.” Really? That will be an interesting change of tactics. There is a list of unanswered questions a mile long that I can’t get answers to. Some of them are here – -answers-from-phorm/I look forward to getting Phorm’s answers. And answers from my ISP (BT – they of the covert Webwise trials) would be welcome too, they stopped answering my questions months ago, shut down discussion on Webwise on their forums and have been sitting on their hands for months saying nowt. Sorry – I just don’t believe that last comment. If Phorm and their partner ISPs were answering our questions there’d be a lot less fuss. But they don’t. And Virgin Media and Carphone Warehouse aren’t being very chatty about this technology either. They have their Webwise FAQs published, there is NO dialogue.

Posted by phormaverse | Report as abusive

There are very good reasons why ISPs/Telcos are not routinely allowed to “intercept” or “divulge” Communication data, other than for Warranted Law Enforcement Purposes or reasonable Traffic Management Purposes!I’m still with BT “I WONDER IF THEY STILL HAVE THAT EQUIPMENT ATTACHED TO THIS CONNECTION AND ARE SILENTLY PROFILING THE REUTERS COPYRIGHTED DATA ON THIS WEBSITE!” GSALY

Posted by Jonh UID | Report as abusive

I don’t understand why people get so hyper over this. Just install an ad-blocker, which locally intercepts all URL requests matching a given set of rules, so that the outside world never even sees them.On the one hand, your browser will mysteriously start running an order of magnitude faster, it won’t fall over so often because of badly constructed Flash, and you’ll get an extra layer of protection against drive-by viruses.On the other hand, any data Phorm collects about you will become useless, at least to the advertising agencies. And if it’s useless they won’t want to spend their precious money buying it. Phorm’s business model just disappears, without any fuss.Anyone who would rather whinge about this than take such a simple measure needs their head examined….

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

@Ian KemmishThe snooping is done by Deep Packet Inspection. It intercepts all your web traffic at a level you cannot block. All the HTTP data you type and see is intercepted.

Posted by steve | Report as abusive

This is a better location for Dr Clayton’s report mentioned above. 18-phorm.pdf@Ian KemmishYou miss the point. It’s not the adverts people object to, but the method of collecting the data, right at the heart of your ISP. You can’t do anything about that (except change ISP).

Posted by mrk456 | Report as abusive

“Phorm says the system is completely anonymous”Ah, but it isn’t is it. If it was _completely_ then there would be NO way of identifying one person from another.The system assigns a UNIQUE random ID to each person who it snoops on. That’s how it works. It identifies each person UNIQUELY. i.e. the system KNOWS who you are and it KNOWS you are not a different person.Yes, it KNOWS YOU are intersted in cars, holidays or whatever you di on line. It’s not like Google (which you can CHOOSE not to use) becaus eit does not use cookies (which we can set up to be blocked) but Phorm uses a system in the network to snoop on ALL your data and then select which bits it wants to use.Not REALLY that anonymous then, is it?Phorm need to book that room for another Town Hall Meeting in 2010. They still won’t con us, the public, into taking part. Why would we give up our right to have private and confidential communication. As long as we are not criminals, we have a right, they do not.Come on Mr Gordon Brown, ban this.

Posted by JB | Report as abusive

To intercept the communication between the customers computer and the websites they wish to visit, is like letting the post office open your mail to place approriate adverts inside harvested from key words in your letters.All websites also have copyright on their content which isn’t allowed to be harvested for commercial gain which BT and Phorm will be using it for.

Posted by Anne | Report as abusive

I pay my ISP to connect me directly to a website of my choice, not to redirect me through 3rd party servers that analyse my private data by stealth. Yet, even if “opted-out” (on BT and Phorm’s terms that is, using cookies that have to be renewed continually if one is in the good security habit of clearing cookies on exit) then the redirection still happens.Phorm and BT are not truthful and transparent despite their claims to the contrary, and can’t be trusted. They do not answer all questions. It is reprehensible that BT have muzzled all discussion on their web forums despite the ICO saying that they had to be wholly transparent on the matter of Phorm, Webwise and DPI.

Posted by Dr Strabismus | Report as abusive

One of the biggest blogging engines on the Internet ( has opted out of Phorms Webwise scanning. I suspect larger sites will start following now. Livejournal opt out of Phorm

Posted by Mike Cardwell | Report as abusive

I would never use their technology. The very act of placing systems within the ISP network to monitor browsing habits for use in profiling takes things too far. This is a betrayal of trust on the part of the ISP in my opinion.It is lucky for the UK online population that there has been this ‘small fringe’ group dedicated to fighting Phorm. Although the fact that over 20,000 people signed my petition on the 10 Downing Street website and that this petition remained in the top 5 for almost the entire year it ran, well this indicates that maybe the fringe is not so small. This group of people have already forced Phorm and ISP’s to take a different approach. If you look back a year ago there was very little talk of the system being ‘Opt in’, instead it was reliant on users ‘Opting Out’. whilst this issue has still not been resolved, it is through the hard work of privacy activists that Phorm are under increasing pressure to make it ‘Opt In’. Also if you look at the early Phorm network diagrams, it was obvious that even when you ‘Opted Out’ your data was still sent to the ‘Profiler’, in effect you were only opting out from receiving the actual adverts. Now the ISP’s have faced pressure to implement network based ‘Opt out/in’ so if a user does opt out, their traffic goes nowhere near Phorms kit.So basically, the Phorm we fight today is already different from what Phorm were hoping to implement one year ago, this is a remarkable vistory in this battle for online privacy, however the war is not yet won and there are still many questions outstanding and Phorm can rest assured that people like myself will be dogging them everystep of the way and will make sure to educate as much of the online populace as is possible to get them to see the dangers of the Phorm system and how it is both morally and technically flawed in my opinion.

Posted by Mark Thompson | Report as abusive

Hi,I am very pleased with the thought and don’t feel like adding anything in it. It’s a perfect answer.Helen,paralegal jobs uk

Posted by Helen | Report as abusive

My online viewing policy is to block or filter out as much advertising as possible and never access or click on any that gets through. In which case I see very little point in having my connection slowed down or analysed by any system such as Phorm. I have now moved my broadband from BT to a provider who has undertaken not to deploy any such system and many of my friends acquaintances have done the same.

Posted by Munzly | Report as abusive

The company called doubleclick has been doing this for many years already.

Posted by Dave Evans | Report as abusive

[…] which continues to argue that its system is completely anonymous, is currently trying to change its image through a new advertising campaign and a series of “town hall” […]

Posted by We Love Crowds » European Commission and UK Clash Over Phorm | Report as abusive

It seems really shadey to me. Thier own website looks shadey.

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