Digital Privacy

Phorm update

It’s difficult to tell which of today’s developments the UK’s major ISPs should be more worried about – the fact that Sir Tim Berners-Lee has publicly stated that he would change his ISP if it started employing systems, like Phorm, which could track his activity on the internet, or the news that UK digital rights gurus the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) have today written an open letter to the Information Commissioner, urging him to look at the legality of Phorm.

Over the last few weeks, the story that BT, Virgin and TalkTalk are signed up to trial Phorm, a system which tracks users’ online surfing habits in order to target ads at them, has caused a storm all over the internet. As Sir Tim tells the BBC’s Rory Cellan Jones today:

“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.”

Or as ORG might paraphrase

“Keep your mitts off my bits”

Meanwhile, FIPR have written to the Information Commissioner’s Office with a detailed analysis of the legality (or otherwise) of Phorm. FIPR spokesperson (and Open Rights Group Advisory Council member) Richard Clayton puts it like this:

“The Phorm system is highly intrusive — it’s like the Post Office opening all my letters to see what I’m interested in, merely so that I can be sent a better class of junk mail. Not surprisingly, when you look closely, this activity turns out to be illegal. We hope that the Information Commissioner will take careful note of our analysis when he expresses his opinion upon the scheme.”

The ISPs which propose to use Phorm are yet to respond to ORG’s call to publish the privacy impact assessment they commissioned from 80/20 Ltd (whose Director, Simon Davies, is also Director of Privacy International), as well as full details of how Phorm will work. Until we can all see for ourselves exactly how Phorm works – and across whose networks our data will flow – speculation about the privacy implications of Phorm will only continue.