Daily Archives: 2008-04-04

The Phorm “Webwise'' System

Last week I spent several hours at Phorm learning how their advertising system works — this is the system that is to be deployed by the UK’s largest ISPs to pick apart your web browsing activities to try and determine what interests you.

The idea is that advertisers can be more picky in who they serve adverts to… you’ll get travel ads if you’ve been looking to go to Pamplona for the running of the bulls, car adverts if you’ve been checking out the prices of Fords (the intent is that Phorm’s method of distilling down the ten most common words on the page will allow them to distinguish between a Fiesta and a Fiesta!)

I’ve now written up the extensive technical details that they provided (10 pages worth) which you can now download from my website.

Much of the information was already known, albeit perhaps not all minutiae. However, there were a number of new things that were disclosed.

Phorm explained the process by which an initial web request is redirected three times (using HTTP 307 responses) within their system so that they can inspect cookies to determine if the user has opted out of their system, so that they can set a unique identifier for the user (or collect it if it already exists), and finally to add a cookie that they forge to appear to come from someone else’s website. A number of very well-informed people on the UKCrypto mailing list have suggested that the last of these actions may be illegal under the Fraud Act 2006 and/or the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

Phorm also explained that they inspect a website’s “robots.txt” file to determine whether the website owner has specified that search engine “spiders” and other automated processing systems should not examine the site. This goes a little way towards obtaining the permission of the website owner for intercepting their traffic — however, in my view, failing to prohibit the GoogleBot from indexing your page is rather different from permitting your page contents to be snooped upon, so that Phorm can turn a profit from profiling your visitors.

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.

Update (2008-04-06):

Phorm have now quoted sections of this article on their own blog: http://blog.phorm.com/?p=12. Perhaps not surprisingly, they’ve quoted the paragraph that was favourable to their cause, and failed to mention all the paragraphs that followed that were sharply critical. They then fail, again how can one be surprised? to provide a link back to this article so that people can read it for themselves. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

Update (2008-04-07):

Phorm have now fixed a “tech glitch” (see comment #31) and now link to my technical report. The material they quote comes from this blog article, but they point out that they link to the ORG blog, and that links to this blog article. So that’s all right then!