Digital Privacy

There’s no excuse for industrial-scale snooping

Following yesterday’s news that BT have ditched Phorm, it is now reported that Carphone Warehouse have joined the list of big-name clients shunning the service.

Commenting on just why this behavioural advertising system causes such controversy, Nicholas Bohm (FIPR General Counsel and ORG Advisory Councillor) – one of Phorm’s strongest critics – wrote this personal view for the Guardian:

The advertising industry claims that people browsing the Web and coming across advertisements would prefer the ads to be about things that interest them. That certainly isn’t true of everyone – I for one find the ads distracting, and more distracting if they’re about things that interest me. But for many people it may be what they want.

Phorm’s idea of how to decide what people are interested in is to have their ISP snoop on their web browsing sessions and analyse the pages they visit. This seems to me a grotesque intrusion. The fact that the ISP would have to get consent to do this might not be much protection. All too many of us click on buttons marked “Yes, proceed” without always appreciating the consequences, because you have to do it so often just to get anything done. And the ISPs considering deployment of Phorm’s system never explained how they would make sure that every individual user gave consent, as the law requires, and not just the one who held the account.

If people are really so keen to see ads for things of interest to them, then they would willingly complete a short online profile of their interests every so often, especially given some inducement. The truth is that most people would never bother, of course, which suggests that the claims of the advertising industry about what they would really prefer are exaggerated, and slightly influenced by self-interest. Using such dubious claims as an excuse for industrial-scale snooping seems to me just plain nauseating.