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Phorm offers today’s oximoron – eavesdroppers protect your privacy

April 5th, 2008 · No Comments ·

An oxymoron is a rhetorical figure in which contradictory terms are combined to create new meaning (e.g., true lies, plastic glasses, living dead). Phorm is trying to tell us that finding out more regarding your surfing habits on the web will help protecting your privacy BETTER. We explain below some of the challenges that you should reflect upon when your Internet Service Provider is trying to convince you that more eavesdropping will increase your privacy.


Phorm and NebuAd work by installing devices on the networks of participating Internet service providers. These devices monitor all the websites you visit and, as importantly, register what keywords you search for on these pages.

These devices are programmed to look for information that can be grouped according to broader categories of products the sufer may be interested in. An example might be when you look for a new backpack or certain types of books.

Based on this type of information, these systems can then associate a particular profile with its categories with your computer. Apparently, personal data such as your name or postal address are not included.

After the profiles are created, these companies claim to discard any record of the individual’s actual web surfing beahvior. Naturally, these companies then point out that this is in contrast to Google or Yahoo! both of which keep log files. The latter record every search term used and page displayed on these sites.

Phorm claims that the profile does not include personally identifiable information such as your name or postal address.

For the above claim to work properly, the consumer or citizen has to accept that IP addresses and other information that uniquely identify one’s PC are not personally identifiable information. This is worrisome, because thes bits of information can be used to identify the individual web surfer when being cross-referenced with any other dataset.

CyTRAP Labs cannot accept that claim.


Basically, your friendly Internet Service Provider (ISP) is likely to be the culprit – having installed thse network devices somewhere to eavesdrop on your Internet habits.

BT Broadband has admitted that it carried out secret trials on 18,000 user accounts in autumn 2006 with technology from 121Media, which became the targeted advertising company Phorm.

Phorm is negotiating a deal with BT, Virgin Media and Talk Talk (UK’s 3 largest ISPs with about 10m users). Phorm would analyze web browsing and offer targeted adverts.

Some news reports claim that at least 100,000 U.S. customers are tracked this way. Worst is that service providers have been testing this technology with up to 10% of their US customers.

Data about where the technology is being used exactly, how many users are affected and so on is still sketchy.


Get the free tool to protect yourself against Phorm and other firms like this trying to profile ‘your computer’ according to your surfing habits:

CyTRAP Labs’ Choice – Free Tool – Protecting Yourself Against Russian Botnets


Not knowing a surfer’s exact ID does not stop one from profiling them and having a very good idea about what the person is doing. We have explained this neatly a while back when AOL really goofed with search records being released online.

Mashup sites and AOL – there goes your privacy

As stated a bit earlier in this post, CyTRAP Labs does not accept the claim that not knowing a surfer’s exact ID stops the ISP or the advertiser from profiling the user.


Why the Federal Trade Commission in the US is interested in these matters and how UK law might help in protecting us against this incredible privacy threat is outlined here:

EU-Regustand trend spotting – behavioral targeting – the mother of all privacy battles – have consumers lost already?

also of interest:
German Federal Constitutional Court rejects law permitting online police spying
why Firefox helps your security efforts, while Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 fails you terribly
Safer Internet Day 2008 – dealing with personal and computer-related risks
Comcast prevents customers from using BitTorrent and Gnutella


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