Phorm Calls Google Privacy Threat: Pot Calling Kettle...?

Behavioral targeting company Phorm has come in for a lot of criticism from privacy advocates. Now, the company's fighting back by launching its own newsletter.


The inaugural edition was distributed this morning to journalists and other industry observers (a Phorm spokesperson would say only that it's being distributed to those who've expressed an interest in the company). It includes articles touting personalized ads, bashing Google, and complaining about a recent House of Commons privacy roundtable -- where Phorm wasn't invited to speak. At that event, held last Thursday, Web founder Tim Berners-Lee warned that Internet service provider-based targeting platforms -- such as Phorm's -- could be harmful. He argued that people should be able to navigate the Web without being tracked, according to The Register. "I have come here to defend the internet as a medium," he reportedly said.

Phorm responded to that criticism in its new newsletter. The company said the technology is "not the same as is having a 'spy camera' in your room, nor is it akin to the post office reading people's letters." Rather, Phorm argues, "the system is more like a mail sorting machine, which has no knowledge of who you are, and directs the right ad to the right person."

Privacy advocates have objected to ISP-based behavioral targeting, arguing that it's more intrusive than older forms of behavioral targeting because ISPs can collect information about all Web activity, including searches and visits to noncommercial sites. Older behavioral targeting platforms -- like Tacoda or Audience Science -- only collect information across a limited number of networked sites.

For that reason, privacy advocates, and some lawmakers, say that ISP-based targeting requires consumers' explicit consent.

But Phorm -- and some ISPs that would like to enter the Web ad space -- counter that Google poses a similar privacy threat because it, too, has access to a wealth of information about users' Web activities.

So it's not surprising that another newsletter item criticizes Google on privacy grounds. "The launch of Google Latitude resulted in the voices of privacy advocates ringing out around the world and a severe case of tinnitus for the search engine's PR people," the Phorm article asserts. The newsletter says that privacy advocates objected to the feature because Google "is adding yet more personal data to the extensive user information it collects from its search engine and its display ad serving company, DoubleClick."

In fact, Google is not keeping logs of users' locations, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Additionally, Privacy International did object to Latitude -- but on different grounds. That group argued that the system had a design flaw that could result in stalking, because it's theoretically possible that a phone could be enabled without the owner's knowledge.

Google answered that it has a safety feature to alert users of some smartphones that Latitude is running, and will soon extend that feature to other mobile platforms.

3 comments about "Phorm Calls Google Privacy Threat: Pot Calling Kettle...? ".
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  1. Malcolm Rasala from Real Creatives Worldwide, March 17, 2009 at 4:59 a.m.

    Phorm is a major threat to your privacy. It is dangerous and should be stopped by all who believe in liberty.

    The very idea that a money-making bunch of creeps can
    know who you and I write to/email so they can bombard us with supposedly relevant advertising messages is appalling and must be thwarted.

    They have no moral right to do this. They hopefully will
    have no legal right. At best forcing them to ask us to opt in to such an intrusive should kill off much of their business. At worst some freedoms are worth fighting for. And to not have some jerk looking over your shoulder is one freedom we should all take to the
    barricades over. My company will certainly argue
    vigorously against Phorm and its ilk and we rep lots of big lawyers that could make Phorms privacy intrusions very very expensive for the company and its directors. &

    at who you contact

  2. Not Telling, March 17, 2009 at 5:55 a.m.

    Phorm argues; "the system is more like a mail sorting machine, which has no knowledge of who you are, and directs the right ad to the right person."

    Don't mail sorting machines only look at the envelop, not the contents?

    The analogy of a mail sorting machine is clearly wrong: That would amount to looking at the layer3 (IP) header

    Mail sorting machines look at the address to which the packet is intended to be sent.

    Phorm's system, instead of reading just the outside of the envelope so it can send the mail on its way to the right address, ***opens*** the letter and ***scans the contents***, before adding a selection of carefully targeted ad leaflets, sealing it up and delivering it, hoping that no one notices.

    Note: In the Real World postmen who do that get sacked and, if possible, sent to jail.

  3. Andre Szykier from maps capital management, March 20, 2009 at 9:03 p.m.

    Telecom companies are a network of switches connecting media between originator and receiver. Calls are bits in digital networks and carriers provide quality of service and usability to its subscribers. They are not interested in the content (govt agencies aside) but in assuring that content gets from point a to b.

    Now carriers do analyze their network traffic for various reasons: load, pricing, time, network, class of service. They can distinguish between data (IM, SMS, WEB services) and comm. (talking). That's it.

    Why should ISP traffic be any different? Because the Web is inculcated with a business model that injected advertising at some point, to " pay" for the experience.

    Imagine that at the start/end or in the middle of your phone call, you were interrupted with an advertising message related to your conversation. Speech to text technology could do that today. How would you like to get a promotion for Viagra during a call with a potential date the same night.

    Well, that is what Phorm and FrontPorch claim that they can provide...

    Let's not confuse the method of communication with the ability of a 3rd party to make inferences on content or from/to addressing and sell that to advertisers.

    It's wrong. Opt-in/out is irrelevant, it's wrong!

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