Critic compares Phorm to ‘industrial espionage’

Behavioural advertising system Phorm could be seen as industrial espioniage' by some businesses, according to one critic.

Phorm scans network traffic to help it decide which ads to display to the user - a system which the firm claims offers better advertising but critics say is intrusive. The EU is currently pondering whether a trial of it in the UK was illegal.

Speaking at a Westminster eForum on the subject, Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group (ORG) said it's not just individuals who are concerned with Phorm's deep packet inspection, but companies as well.

"May businesses will think commerical data and relationships should simply be private until they and their customers decide," Killock said.

"Many businesses may go so far as to think that having their data spied upon is a form of industrial espionage," he added.

Killock said that any business running a website should have a contractual relationship with any third party that will see their data.

Phorm's senior vice president for technology Marc Burgess said the anonymous nature of the system would mean any user data not relating to an existing advertising category would not be examined, so sensitive data would not be at risk.

He added that people would be able to opt out: "If they opt out, nothing touches Phorm's systems."

But Killock noted that Phorm could see data of people who weren't on the system if they were involved in communication with someone who was an email, for example, from a Phorm user to a non-user would naturally pass through the firm's system. "Where you're [Phorm] sitting in the network, you profile anybody... people and companies in particular may not want that," he said.

Burgess called that concern a "red herring," saying there was no way any real content could be taken out of the data.

Phorm's Burgess said his firm has frequently offered to allow critics to come in and examine the system. He said critic Sir Tim Berners-Lee "should come be our Hans Blix to come in and see we aren't stockpiling data."

Berners-Lee has previously said Phorm was like a "TV camera in your living room."