Software Attempts To Foil Data Harvesting

AntiPhorm screengrabPrivacy advocates are stepping up the pressure on behavioral targeting company Phorm. A group calling itself this week released a program aimed at interfering with Phorm's ability to harvest data about people's Web-surfing ability from Internet service providers.

The program, AntiPhorm Lite, runs on users' computers and surfs the Web in the background. With the additional Web-surfing activity, Phorm's platform will be less effective because it will analyze the random clicks along with users' real clicks.

Phorm segments Web users into marketing segments based on clickstream data from Internet service providers, and then encodes that information on cookies it places on people's computers. The company also allows people to opt-out of its targeting program, and that information also is stored on cookies on users' computers.

Phorm, poised to launch in the UK, has deals with three UK Internet service providers--BT, Virgin and Carphone Warehouse. The company also intends to launch in the U.S.

Although Phorm does not collect personal data like names or addresses, privacy advocates are troubled by the platform because of its sheer comprehensiveness: Internet service providers can capture every site Web users visit and every search query they make, allowing marketers to create extremely detailed and specific profiles. More conventional behavioral targeting companies focus on visits made to sites within their networks.

But despite privacy concerns, this new AntiPhorm application is "is a bit of overkill," security researcher Eric Howes said. "Wouldn't it be much simpler and easier just to delete the Phorm cookie on a regular basis or even block it from being set?" asked Howes, director of malware research at Sunbelt Software. "Without the cookie Phorm's system can't build a profile in the first place."

He added that the application could potentially be used to defeat almost any targeting platform that relies on Web-surfing activity, ranging from cookie-based programs to ad-serving software.

A Phorm spokesman added that the program is unnecessary. "There is a far simpler and safer option available via the Phorm technology itself," the spokesman said. "Participation will always be a transparent choice, so users will be able to switch the system on or off at any time they choose when the technology is deployed in the United States."

Next story loading loading..