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Information Commissioners Office Approves Phorm

Posted: 07th Apr, 2008 By: MarkJ
The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) has issued an open-statement in which it appears to give the controversial Phorm system its approval. The message, which has angered the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), also shuns consumer concerns and several major criticisms from technical and industry experts:

Phorm advertising – ICO statement

The ICO has received a number of queries concerning the recent announcement by Phorm that 3 major UK Internet Service Providers have agreed to allow them to use technology, developed by Phorm, to present adverts to their customers based on the nature of the websites they visit.

Understandably, this has provoked considerable public concern. We have had detailed discussions with Phorm. They assure us that their system does not allow the retention of individual profiles of sites visited and adverts presented, and that they hold no personally identifiable information on web users. Indeed, Phorm assert that their system has been designed specifically to allow the appropriate targeting of adverts whilst rigorously protecting the privacy of web users. They clearly recognise the need to address the concerns raised by a number of individuals and organisations including the Open Rights Group.

We welcome the efforts they are making to engage with sceptical technical experts and believe that it is only by allowing their technology to be subject to detailed scrutiny by independent technical experts that they will be able to prove their assertions regarding privacy. The ICO strongly supports the use of technology in ways which enhance rather than intrude upon privacy, and plans to produce a report on “Privacy by Design” later this year.

We understand that the technology is not yet in use and that BT intends to run a trial involving around 10,000 broadband users later this month. We have spoken to BT about this trial and they have made clear that unless customers positively opt in to the trial their web browsing will not be monitored in order to deliver adverts. BT has also stated that the system does not store personally identifiable information, URLs, IP addresses or retain browsing histories and that search information is deleted almost immediately, and is not retrievable.

We will continue to maintain close contact with Phorm and BT throughout the trial. Clearly the trial should reveal whether this is a service that web users want, whether it is privacy friendly and that users are comfortable with the privacy safeguards put in place by Phorm.

The Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), an independent body that studies the interaction between information technology and society, has criticised the statement for appearing to "give the go-ahead for upcoming trials of the system by BT":

Nicholas Bohm, General Counsel for the Foundation for Information Policy Research, said:

"We are one of those organisations expressing deep concern. So far the Information Commissioner has neither acknowledged nor replied to our letter of 17 March, which raised serious and important issues.

We now know that BT have already conducted secret trials of this technology, testing the effectiveness of snooping on their customers' Internet activities. They claim to have received extensive legal and other advice beforehand, but have failed to give the reasoning on which this advice is based.

As we pointed out in our letter, the illegality stems not from breaching the Data Protection Act directly, but arises from the fact that the system intercepts Internet traffic. Interception is a serious offence, punishable by up to two years in prison. Almost incidentally, because the system is unlawful to operate, it cannot comply with Data Protection principles.
"

FIPR's Nicholas Bohm also points out that BT could only legalise their activity by getting express permission not just from their customers, but also from the web hosts whose pages they intercept.

Bohm clearly hopes that the ICO will reconsider its statement, criticising it as being a "green light for lawbreaking". Meanwhile the petition to Stop Phorm has managed to gain 10,368 signatures.
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