March 28, 2008 | Becky Hogge

ORG and FIPR meet with Phorm

On Wednesday, at their invitation, I went to Phorm’s offices in Central London. I was accompanied by ORG Advisory Council member (and Foundation for Information Policy Research Treasurer) Richard Clayton. We were there, on Phorm’s invitation, to find out how the systems that they are selling to BT, Virgin and TalkTalk actually work. Over the last few weeks, the story that three of the UK’s major ISPs are signed up to trial Phorm, which tracks users’ online surfing habits in order to serve them targeted ads, has been met with significant public resistance.

We didn’t go to Phorm for “the layman’s view”. We wanted the real deal, and I’m delighted to say that that’s what we got. Over the coming days, Richard Clayton will be posting details of different aspects of the system on Light Blue Touchpaper, posts which I will report on here. Earlier this month, the Open Rights Group called on Phorm to publish full details of how the technology will work – Richard’s analysis will provide this information. Only when we know how Phorm actually works can we model exactly what the implications of the technology are for users’ privacy. Richard and I also encouraged Phorm representatives to join the UK-crypto mailing list, in order to engage further with the expert community.

In the meantime, I thought it would be useful if I noted one of the less technical discussions that took place at the meeting. Phorm remain convinced that their technology, in the words of Simon Davies "advance[s] the whole sector of protecting personal information by two to three steps". This assertion is based on the significant measures they have taken to obscure identifying and sensitive information as they track web activity in order to serve targeted ads.

However, what this assertion fails to take into account is that BT, Virgin and TalkTalk are proposing to apply the Phorm system to a layer of the web stack that has previously been free of any such tracking and targeting activity. It is this aspect of the story which has caused so much public disquiet. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee put it last week:

"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."

If you don’t like the way a web application is protecting your privacy, you can use another one, and if you can’t find one you want to use then you can build your own. But you can’t build your own connectivity. If the UK’s major ISPs all sign up to Phorm, then UK citizens will find it increasingly difficult to find connectivity that doesn’t come with "strings attached". Internet users can opt out, as, it turns out, can server operators (but I’ll let Richard provide details of that). TalkTalk have even indicated that they will make their Phorm system opt in. But is this enough? How long until we are asked to pay a premium for connectivity which comes "snoop-free"?

Nothing Richard Clayton and I saw yesterday appeared to contradict the legal analysis issued by FIPR last week, analysis that raised questions as to Phorm’s legality under section 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. But the Phorm issue is far more likely to be decided upon in the court of public opinion than in a court of law.

At the meeting, I encouraged Phorm to engage further with its critics. They are now planning an open, public meeting to hear people’s concerns about their technology. As soon as I have details of this meeting I will publish them here. If you’ve seen expert comment on Phorm, or think that the debate would benefit if others (for example the ISPs themselves) were specifically invited, please leave your suggestions in the comments. Thanks to everyone who left comments to my previous two posts on Phorm, many of them were tremendously helpful in preparing for the meeting.

Earlier this month, ORG also called for 80/20 Thinking Ltd’s privacy impact assessment to be made public. An interim assessment [pdf], dated 10 February 2008, was published last week. It predicts the media and public backlash against Phorm, and leaves several questions unanswered, including "Can an external attacker gain access to the required information to re-link [an] individual [with their] unique identifier?" Phorm let us know yesterday that the full privacy impact assessment (which was due this month) has not yet been completed, and that they will publish it as soon as they can after it is complete.