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EU Investigates Phorm's UK ISP Advertising System 90

Posted by timothy
from the ebay-bids-from-cubicle-81773(d) dept.
MJackson writes "The European Commission has opened an infringement proceeding against the UK after a series of complaints by Internet users, and extensive communication with UK authorities, about the use of Phorm's behavioural advertising system, which uses Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, by internet service providers. Phorm works with UK ISPs to monitor what websites you visit for use in targeted advertising campaigns, though its methods have raised more than a few fears about invasions of privacy. Similar services in the USA have caused an equal level of controversy."
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EU Investigates Phorm's UK ISP Advertising System

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  • Google (Score:2, Interesting)

    by b0ttle (1332811)
    Isn't that almost what google do?
    • by sopssa (1498795)
      Its nice to know that some nerd in backroom on his bored hours can follow the urls where people have visited.
    • Re:Google (Score:5, Insightful)

      by oobayly (1056050) on Tuesday April 14, 2009 @11:33AM (#27571227)

      Ah, the most common argument for Phorm.
      Difference is that you can chose not to use Google. If your ISP decides to do this you'll be opted in by default, and every time you delete your cookies, you'll be opted in again. We're not even sure that by opting out makes your traffic bypass Phorm's servers.

      What's even worse is that the tax payer will pay the fine, not BT & Phorm. As usual the Criminal Protection Service, ahem Crown Prosecution Service has fucked the general public in favour of keeping Ministers friends on-side.

      Sad this is that Brussels is better at looking out for us than Westminster.

      • by Rogerborg (306625)
        Also, I'd lay good money that attempting to opt out of Phorm will get you put on a Watch List. I mean, if you don't intend to do anything wrong, what have you got to hide?
      • You can choose not to use google in much the same way as you can choose not to be bitten by mosquitoes in the middle of the Minnesota woods.

        You are free to swat at will. You may occasionally miss, You can wear bug repellant but it is imperfect and tends to wear off. You may be unable to swat at all. On many systems (such as say my treo 680) because the script and cookie handling functions are not advanced enough to be able to do more than simple global on/off you are more or less stuck with it. Almost eve
        • Or, you could add the known Google advertising URLs to your hosts file, with the added benefit of adwords javascript not loading at all. Personally I do this as well as block cookies from the google.com domains.
      • Re:Google (Score:5, Insightful)

        by AmiMoJo (196126) <mojo@world3AAA.net minus threevowels> on Tuesday April 14, 2009 @01:51PM (#27573653) Homepage

        Someone should go to jail for this, but no-one will.

        Someone should go to jail over the guy being shoved, beaten and eventually dying near the G20 protests, but no-one will.

        Someone should go to jail over the Jean Charles De Menezes murder, but no-one will.

        Someone should go to jail over the various rail crashes due to poor maintenance or negligence, but no-one will.

        Someone should go to jail over the war started on the basis of a dossier compiled from plagiarised articles on the internet, but no-one will.

        The list goes on, but somehow no-one in a position of responsibility is ever responsible.

        • Ian Tomlinson was pushed to the ground by a police officer after strolling into the scene of the biggest violent protest in recent London history. He died of a pre-existing heart condition soon after, likely caused by the stress of the incident - this was tragic, and the officer involved should feel guilt at his actions.

          However, where the hell do you get that he was "beaten"?! It helps no one to muddy the facts.

          I was going to moan about the description of De Menezes death as "murder" based on my underst

      • by Patch86 (1465427)

        Sad this is that Brussels is better at looking out for us than Westminster.

        You say that like it's a strange thing. The politicians at Brussels are just the same as the politicians in Westminster, just with different friends and different interests.

        Where one fails, the other might do us a service.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by onion2k (203094)

      With Google you can block it by switching off cookies if you don't trust Google's opt out option. With DPI at the ISP level you can't. You have no control over what they're monitoring (save for doing something like using an encrypted tunnel to a proxy outside of the ISPs view). That's a pretty significant difference.

      • You have no control over what they're monitoring (save for doing something like using an encrypted tunnel to a proxy outside of the ISPs view). That's a pretty significant difference.

        I don't use TPB for torrents, but i'll certainly use their IPREDator VPN service to get around this.

    • Re:Google (Score:5, Informative)

      by arkhan_jg (618674) on Tuesday April 14, 2009 @11:55AM (#27571633)

      Google only records what information you give them when you use their services directly; when you search on google or use gmail or the like. The EULA for the service explains what is done with your data. This is explicitly allowed under the Data Protection Act (as it should be - otherwise apache logs would be illegal!) once you leave their site though, the logging ends.

      Phorm collects detailed information on all your browsing traffic without your knowledge or consent, and then shares it with third parties, again without your knowledge or consent - take the BT trial, where people didn't even know it was running, let alone opt-in.

      There's a good argument that Phorm breaches the Regulation of Investigatory Powers act here; as a non-governmental body (i.e. not specifically authorised to intercept traffic) they don't have the right to intercept and record the traffic of users without it being explicitly opt-in - it can even be argued that such recording requires the opt-in of both parties, i.e. the websites that people visit need to agree too.

      Depending on what they do with the data specifically, and who it gets passed to, they may well be in breach of the Data Protection Act too.

      ISPs have to record certain communications information under the Interception Modernisation Program, to be provided upon request to local and national governmental bodies. Phorm definitely doesn't qualify under that either.

      • by daveime (1253762)

        Only if "using their service directly" includes loading doubleclick* and google* cookies, and the gs.js javascript tracking system, which you have no control over unless you actually install some kind of blocking mechanism on your browser. And bearing in mind that these two tracking devices are included on just about every major website in the world ?

        They have records of probably everywhere you visit, not just when you make a search on google.com.

        • by jesset77 (759149)

          On top of the ads don't forget their nearly ubiquitus "Google Analytics" feature that so many website silently use these days.

          After Google's recent behavioral tracking push, they warned me via email that I would need to update one of MY WEBSITE'S privacy policies [blogspot.com] to avoid legal liability following their new improprieties.

          Now I use Adblock and a peppering of few other measures to resist profiling.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Don't get me wrong, I am completely against Phorm's practices. But it seems like it's completely ok for the government and the EU to question companies and individuals about this kind of practice. But when it comes to individuals asking the government about wiretapping etc. it's a completely different thing?
     
    I'm sorry, I know the government is just trying to protect our kids from those drug-dealing maffia-involved sexual predator terrorists.

    • I'm sorry, I know the government is just trying to protect our kids from those drug-dealing maffia-involved sexual predator terrorists.

      FTS:

      about the use of Phorm's behavioural advertising system, which uses ... [DPI] technology, by internet service providers.

      I'm sorry, I just have a problem with a company called Phorm using DPI. Phorm is obviously short for chloroform, which is used by the sexual predators to abduct our childrens.

      DPI probably involves two predators, if the "DP" part of that is what I

    • FTA: "However interception is considered to be lawful when the interceptor has "reasonable grounds for believing" that consent has been given."

      I think the European Commission should win this even though the ISP will probably argue that consent has been given (small print they put somewhere).

      I agree with the government comment - the government will probably say well anyone that lives here gives us consent - says us.
      • Would changing the user-agent of my browser to I-DO-NOT-CONSENT-TO-PHORM-PROFILING count as not giving consent?
    • by 91degrees (207121)
      But it seems like it's completely ok for the government and the EU to question companies and individuals about this kind of practice. But when it comes to individuals asking the government about wiretapping etc. it's a completely different thing?

      The key difference is that we elect the government.
  • by auric_dude (610172) on Tuesday April 14, 2009 @11:44AM (#27571441)
    The BBC has potted history of Phorm & BT's actions in the UK. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7619297.stm [bbc.co.uk] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7959099.stm [bbc.co.uk] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7988154.stm [bbc.co.uk] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7998009.stm [bbc.co.uk] and on top of that my ISP has stated that they will not use Phorm or anything Phorm like.
  • Objecting to Phorm (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 14, 2009 @11:45AM (#27571451)

    I'm still reading all the essays Canada's deep packet inspection education site, but this one seems very topical:

    Objecting to Phorm [priv.gc.ca]

    Bonus - Phorm's 'essay' submission (but more like marketing drivel):

    Phorm: A New Paradigm in Internet Advertising [priv.gc.ca]

  • by tygerstripes (832644) on Tuesday April 14, 2009 @11:48AM (#27571501)

    Allowing Phorm to do their thing has awful consequences. We're already in the process of having every phone call, text and email logged in a massive "just looking for terrorists, nothing to worry about" database.

    Once a private company is able to execute DPI without your explicit consent, purely for profit, what's to stop the government from doing the same "for everyone's protection"? Surely that's a more worthy abuse of your right to privacy...?

    Slippery slope? We're about to hit bottom, ladies & gentlemen.

  • Fearing invasions of privacy is dated 1948 when Orwell wrote his most famous book. There are even other examples before. Is it now not too late? Otherwise we should roll back Google, Facebook and a lot of other daily friends.
    • by cheftw (996831)

      Animal Farm was written in '33 and '34. Jeez

    • You can choose not to use Google, Facebook, and other "social networking" sites. Good luck ensuring your data isn't profiled by servers hosted at your ISP, though.

      If Tor were faster, I'd use that. In the absence, VPN out of the country will do.
  • The UK government are with the whipped ISP's collusion, intercepting all websites anyone visits for their log files to prove you're a "terrorist" (by whatever convenient definition they used for terrorist yesterday or decided on today or tomorrow). Phorm are intercepting all your web traffic and serving up different advertising content.

    How long before the two join forces and your web pages you looked for are re-written on the fly by the government for more favourable coverage, and to kill off opposition?

    The

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      This is how the EU works.

      They create problems to which they are the solution. In this case the problem is the EU Data Retention Directive 2006. As faithful servants of the EU, the UK government have implemented this in such a way that the 'national' government looks like the bad guy. The European commission come along and say 'Now that's not very nice. We're going to use soft power on you (fines, news stories to the people so so everyone thinks yay EU, etc).

      The EU pulled the same trick countless times to gr

      • by swjenner (1133629)

        This is how the EU works.

        They create problems to which they are the solution. In this case the problem is the EU Data Retention Directive 2006. As faithful servants of the EU, the UK government have implemented this in such a way that the 'national' government looks like the bad guy. The European commission come along and say 'Now that's not very nice. We're going to use soft power on you (fines, news stories to the people so so everyone thinks yay EU, etc).

        The EU pulled the same trick countless times to grab power, most recently with the British postal service, Royal Mail. The news was full of stories about Peter Mandelson (EUrocrat) saying RM would have to be part privatised as it wasn't profitable any more, etc. The truth is quite different.

        In 1997 EU directive 97/67/EC introduced the EU-wide postal service which obviously clashes with the Royal Mail. Initially it allowed German firms TNT and DHL to cherry pick Royal Mail's profitable areas.

        Directive 2002/39/EC gave yet more of Royal Mail's profitable business to private companies, and article 14 of this directive has 2009 as the year to complete the EU wide postal service. Like clockwork Mandleson appears on the scene in 2009 to start the sell off.

        It's all a con. National identity is to be wiped out for the EUSSR to take over every country in Europe, and every national government is part of the treason.

        This poster knows what he is talking about!! At the heart of everything that is wrong with the UK is the dead hand of the European Commission giving our corrupt politicians the opportunity to goldplate some invasive buch of drivel.

  • what about taking counter measures like producing senseless traffic? most people (at least the kind of ppl i know) do have a 6-16mbit connection. it shouldnt be too hard to script a spider that just gets page after page from random servers. or to avoid punishing innocent hosters with useless traffic just let it get pages from the isps using phorm.
  • The INTERNET isn't private. It is PUBLIC. What you do on the internet, what sites you go to, what you look at, what you listen to, what you do, what information you send, what you receive is ALL PUBLIC.

    You want privacy? Encrypt everything you don't want anyone else to see. And you better trust the person on the other end to keep your info private, and good luck with that.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      The INTERNET isn't private. It is PUBLIC. What you do on the internet, what sites you go to, what you look at, what you listen to, what you do, what information you send, what you receive is ALL PUBLIC.

      If the people want privacy, they'll pass laws "protecting" it. All this really does is raise the bar for those who would violate your privacy, but that does indeed promote privacy for the majority of the population, which is the best you can ever really do without violating one's right to liberty.

      • Nothing like promoting a false sense of security. We don't need more laws protecting stupid people from being stupid. If people don't understand the consequences of their actions why should that affect me and what I choose to do?

        We can write all the laws we want to protect people from getting burned, but the reality is, that gas and matches are dangerous.

    • The INTERNET isn't private. It is PUBLIC. What you do on the internet, what sites you go to, what you look at, what you listen to, what you do, what information you send, what you receive is ALL PUBLIC.

      You are arguing a false dichotomy here. While it may be true to say that the Internet is not private, it is not public either. Public means that anyone can gain access to your Internet activity. I cannot see what websites you visit -- only your ISP can see that and a subset of your Internet activity can be

    • The INTERNET isn't private. It is PUBLIC. What you do on the internet, what sites you go to, what you look at, what you listen to, what you do, what information you send, what you receive is ALL PUBLIC.

      That's news to me. I haven't a blind brass notion of what anyone else is doing online. In fact, I don't even know how I would go about finding out.

      Doesn't sound very public to me.

    • by jonbryce (703250)

      Walking around the streets is PUBLIC. But if some person follows you around to note which shops you visit, and then uses this information to put billboards in front of your face as you walk around, that's stalking, and is illegal.

  • by nweaver (113078) on Tuesday April 14, 2009 @12:00PM (#27571723) Homepage

    The big difference between Phorm and Google is Google has consent of the WEB SITES.

    Neither really have "user" consent, but Google will only track you on pages which are either hosted by Google itself or derive content from Google (adwords, analytics), which specifically excludes porn etc.

    Thus although both have the same objective, they have vastly different mechanisms and Google does have one-party consent, vs Phorm's no-party consent.

    • by whoever57 (658626)

      The big difference between Phorm and Google is Google has consent of the WEB SITES.

      Neither really have "user" consent,

      One can argue that Google has implicit consent. Nothing is forcing me to use Google's services. I could use alternative search engines, etc.. Phorm, on the other hand, the only way to opt out is to use a different ISP.

      • Actually, you can't without serious browser hackery:

        Its not google recording your searches that are your problem, its that EVERY page with Google Analytics or AdWords or Doublclick on it tells google what you are viewing.

      • by Caetel (1057316)
        And in the case of Adsense, Analytics or Doubleclick? The average person has absolutely no way of knowing whether a page contains those before it loads.

        Looking at it that way, at least you have the option to move to another ISP with Phorm.
  • The answer is simple really... if your ISP is involved with Phorm then move to one that isn't. The more people that leave the ISP will [hopefully] make them reconsider their involement with Phorm.

    • by u38cg (607297)
      Agreed with this. BT tried selling me net service, and I told them outright that they would never be considered again due to Phorm. The guy didn't sound surprised.
  • I wrote to my MP... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mccalli (323026) on Tuesday April 14, 2009 @12:10PM (#27571879) Homepage
    Quite some time ago, i wrote to my local MP regarding this. Specifically, I asked him to back an early day motion opposing Phorm (The Register were running the details at the time).

    He wrote back saying that many people didn't realise exactly how the system worked and that supporting this motion would do no real good, but that instead he would question the Cabinet directly. As a result, some time later I had a reply from the Cabinet Minister under whose remit this fell.

    And that reply was awful.

    Essentially it was Phorm's press release. Not even regurgitated - the documents were straight from Phorm. There was clearly no understanding from the Minister involved what was actually being proposed, and the whole attitude smacked of "there there little one, look - the nice company here has promised they're not doing anything wrong". They'd clearly never even really considered it properly. The Information Commission too was at that time pushing the notion nothing was wrong, a stance they've clearly had to back-pedal on in the face of the E.U. pressure.

    Next time I think I'll cut out the middle man and go to the Commission directly. Says nothing good about the state of our democracy, does it? An unelected quango in the Commission does the investigative work, whereas the actual democratic representatives completely ignore voter's enquiries and fob them off with press releases.

    Mind you, well done to my local MP for taking the correct action in getting me a response from literally the highest level available on the subject in the UK.

    Cheers,
    Ian
    • by whoever57 (658626)

      Mind you, well done to my local MP for taking the correct action in getting me a response from literally the highest level available on the subject in the UK.

      Was it the correct action? I don't see what it achieved. Perhaps a successful early day motion would have made the relevent minister do a little more research. Frankly, it sounds like your MP just passed the buck.

      • by arkhan_jg (618674)

        I think that was traditional british sarcasm at the MP going to the body with the most knowledge on Phorm for an answer - Phorm itself.

        Reminds me of a tech support joke:

        There's a man hovering over a field in a hot-air balloon. He spys another man walking down below, and calls out:
        'Hello there - I don't suppose you can tell me where I am? I'm lost!'
        The reply is shouted back,
        'Why yes - you're floating in a hot-air balloon above a field of corn.'
        The man, somewhat disgruntled, shouts back,
        'Let me guess - you wo

  • Nobody likes advertising. The world would be a better place with out it, completely. No more billboards cluttering up highways and ghetto streets. No more web banners for porn on children's sites.

    Is there anyone that doesn't agree? OK, except people getting paid for advertising.

    So it's settled then. No more advertising and we'll all be happy.

    • by jeremyp (130771)

      As long as you understand that most of the "free" services on the Internet e.g. Google are funded by advertising. No advertising, no search engines, no free web mail, no Sourceforge etc etc etc.

  • by British (51765) <british1500@gmail.com> on Tuesday April 14, 2009 @12:38PM (#27572357) Homepage Journal

    If this ISP is doing what it does with advertising injection, are they now officially liable for any illegal content sent through it? I know it's not in the USA, but it seems to me if you have your hand in the content delivery(web data, and so forth), the ISP could be sued for pirated mp3s, illegal content, etc.

    • by jonbryce (703250)

      As I understand it, the ads appear on pages where the site owner has chosen to use phorm for their ads, rather than for example doubleclick or google adwords. But the difference is that phorm will display ads based on the profile it gets from BT, Talk Talk or Virgin.

      AOL UK is owned by Carphone Warehouse who also own Talk Talk. Anyone know if AOL is involved in this?

  • I'm extremely concerned by Phorm.

    Effectively it gives the ISP the ability to remove the adverts that fund 60% of our costs and replace them with adverts for which they would receive the entire revenue stream.

    My site is funded by adverts (60%) merchandise (30%) and donations (10%).

    I'm fairly sure that the community would step up and purchase more stuff and donate more, but I don't think it's realistic that this could be sustained, whereas the advertising revenue is reasonably constant.

    I believe that if Phorm becomes ubiquitous that I would have to question seriously how to find the website, and would probably have to remove all adverts and to seek to have the costs covered exclusively through other means. As I'm unsure of the feasibility of this, I would have to say that in my case the loss of that revenue would threaten my ability to continue running the site, especially under the risk of redundancy in the near/mid future.

    I've already implemented the Phorm opt-out cookies, and written to my local MP (who couldn't care less from the generic response I got), so it's great to see the EU step up where the UK seems to have failed.

    • This is a relatively common misunderstanding of what Phorm does.

      Phorm does NOT replace adverts on websites, it only places adverts where a website owner has signed up for Phorm as an advert provider, it then uses its spying data to decide which adverts are provided to which visitor.

      So you have nothing to worry on that account.

      Phorm is an evil, but it's not that kind of evil.

    • by arkhan_jg (618674)

      While it's indeed worrying what phorm means for privacy and the ability of third parties to snoop on our traffic without our knowledge, I don't think what you're worrying about is the problem.

      Phorm doesn't replace adverts already in place on websites. What it does do is this:

      User A goes to website W.
      Phorm listens in on this, records it and classifies that user as a website-W sort of person - phorm pays your ISP to let them do this.

      User A goes to website X. They have phorm-supplied ad bars. User A now sees a

      • > Phorm listens in on this, records it and classifies that user as a website-W sort of
        > person - phorm pays your ISP to let them do this.

        Why doesn't it pay the user?

        > Or horse porn adverts, if that's what your other family members get up to.

        Why doesn't each of your family members have a seperate account on the machine?

        • by arkhan_jg (618674)

          Why doesn't it pay the user?

          Because the users are a commodity for the ISP to sell to advertisers. What, you thought this was for YOUR benefit?

          Why doesn't each of your family members have a seperate account on the machine?
          AFAIK from previous statements, it doesn't use a local browser cookie for tracking (too easy to mess with), only for opt-out - I believe it's based upon IP/mac address outbound; if you're all behind a single NAT router, it'll combine you all together.

          Hey, I didn't design the thing.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by whoever57 (658626)

            AFAIK from previous statements, it doesn't use a local browser cookie for tracking (too easy to mess with), only for opt-out - I believe it's based upon IP/mac address outbound; if you're all behind a single NAT router, it'll combine you all together.

            Firstly, we should all remember that what is known about Phorm comes from Phorme's employees and they have not been models of accuracy and full disclosure.

            But the use described opt-out mechanism implies that people will have to keep opting out. IP addresse

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by arkhan_jg (618674)

              Opting out is done via browser based cookie according to the ISPs that have implemented it so far. Every single browser you use on every single pc on every single account will have to be opted out manually, and re-opted out every time with changes.

              *All* webtraffic you send via your ISP (that's not say, in a vpn) will go through phorm's systems at the ISP, overhead and all. If there's an opt-out cookie set, they suppposedly ignore that traffic for classification purposes. They also supposedly ignore personal

        • by jonbryce (703250)

          Phorm doesn't know which machine account you are using, or even which machine you are using. It just knows what traffic is going down the phoneline.

          So if you have one person in the house looking at horse porn, and his daughter looking at OMG Ponies! sites, it can't tell them apart.

      • Sounds like it's time for encrypted VPN. If I was subscribed to one of these ISPs, and couldn't find an alternative, that's what I'd be doing. It would slow things down a bit, unfortunately.

  • Here we go again:

    Unlimited connections on static IPs. Secure VPN exit in Switzerland. No download or upload limits. No content filtering. No port blocking. No packet shaping. No transparent web caches. No fair usage policy. No Phorm. No IWF. No censorship. No small print. No call centres. No lock in period.

    I'll get me coat.

    • by arkhan_jg (618674)

      So what you're saying is I should move to Denmark?

    • by daybot (911557) *

      Unfortunately, Super Awesome Broadband would be Super Slow Narrowband where I live - i.e. in a city, but unable to see the telephone exchange from my bedroom window.

      After a year of struggling over the ethics of switching to a monopolistic, Phorm-supporting, bandwidth-throttling FTTC cable [wikipedia.org] supplier [virginmedia.com] instead of my morally superior [ukfsn.org] DSL connection, I finally gave in. Goodbye 800Kbit/s, hello 20Mbit/s.

      Now I do have trouble sleeping at night, but I can just stream HD video to wile away the time.

  • Learn to use your computer software. Use a browser such as Firefox or SeaMonkey that supports an ad blocker extension, selective cookie blocking and accepting temporary session cookies. Clear out cookies regularly. If your Internet service is ADSL or similar with shared IP addresses, reset the modem periodically to get another IP address assigned to your account. If everybody were to do this, it would turn Phorm's database into a pile of garbage and they'd stop doing it.
    • by jesset77 (759149)

      Fair idea, but in Phorm's case it falls apart for clients on Cable connections or any connection where they don't own the demarc and thus cannot change the mac address. Since Phorm tracks by IP, all the cookie/browser/adblocker related measures would do naught to protect you from traffic analysis, or to prevent Phrom from profiling you.

      A better approach might be using a VPN, tor, i2p, perhaps even running a Tor exit node to put a firehose of varietal bandwidth through their filters.

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