Privacy watchdog probes surfing 'spy' technologyMoves comes after three ISPs agree to trial Phorm

12 March 2008

laptop on table being used

Britain’s privacy watchdog is examining new technology that tracks the websites you surf and sells the details to advertisers.

BT, Virgin and Talk Talk – part of the Carphone Warehouse Group - have all signed up to trial the Webwise service from US company Phorm later this year.

It monitors what surfers browse on the web and then sends them ads that appear to match their interests. It's not clear yet in what the form the ads would be sent.

Advertisers pay Phorm a fee, which it shares with the internet service providers.

Privacy worries

But the technology has raised privacy concerns and the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has now requested details of the technology from both Phorm and the three ISPs involved.

An ICO spokesman said: ‘The Information Commissioner’s Office has spoken with the advertising technology company Phorm regarding its agreement with some UK internet service providers.

‘Phorm has informed us about the product and how it works to provide targeted online advertising content.

‘At our request, Phorm has provided written information to us about the way in which the company intends to meet privacy standards. We are currently reviewing this information.

‘We are also in contact with the ISPs who are working with Phorm and we are discussing this issue with it. We will be in a position to comment further in due course.’

Search histories

Phorm has defended the system by pointing out the customer's identity is anonymous so advertisers can't tell who you are.

It says that the technology doesn't store any website addresses or search histories, but rather that it remembers the general category of the sites you visit.

So far, one ISP - Talk Talk - has indicated its customers will need to opt into such a scheme, but details for the others have yet to be announced.

If your ISP starts using the Phorm software, you can switch it off by going to the Webwise website.

Your status will be visible on the homepage alongside the option to switch the facility on or off.

'Worrying trend'

If your ISP is not using the technology, then no opt-out option will be offered and general text will be seen.

Which? Technology Editor Matthew Bath said: ‘The introduction of behaviour-based profile building of consumers by UK broadband providers is a worrying trend.

‘Broadband providers that do use this system should provide clear, easy-to-understand advice to consumers about the service, and provide simple and easy ways for consumers to opt out of having their online behaviour tracked and then sold to advertisers.’