Phorm and deep packet inspection

Blog on May 14th, 2009 3 Comments

It’s Carl Morris here. At the sandpit event I mentioned a company called Phorm in passing. Here’s an intro.

We have become accustomed to near-invisible data collection of our online habits and the benefits it gives. One example from music is Last.FM’s audio scrobbling technology which – if you opt in – will be routinely monitoring your iTunes plays. This builds up a huge aggregated library of useful music data, giving tailored recommendations. It’s a fair swap right? Pretty neat.

Phorm’s data collection is very different for two main reasons:

  1. it works at the ISP stage, doing deep packet inspection – potentially collecting most of your activity on the web
  2. it’s not opt-in (unless you go out of your way to choose your ISP)

It then serves up ads in the browser. You may not feel comfortable with this level of access to your data by Phorm’s clients – which could be companies or possibly government – without your express permission. I think most people are unaware of the ramifications of this, I’ll say that much.

Web creator Tim Berners-Lee says

I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer that that’s not going to get to my insurance company and I’m going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by 5% because they’ve figured I’m looking at those books

There are plenty of mainstream news articles and blog posts about Phorm – check them out. The company itself has a history in spyware and other fine technologies. It’s one to watch if you follow privacy and law around data collection.

Any useful or successful web-based service is based on a useful, novel and popular dataset which cannot be easily replicated. (If you want to build one, that was the secret!) Think the stars of web2.0 – Google, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook etc. So aside from Phorm itself or even deep packet inspection, we can expect more of these kinds of debates – as start-ups look to gather data, sometimes of a personal or private nature.

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3 Responses to “Phorm and deep packet inspection”

  1. CarlMorris says:

    (I should qualify the last paragraph – obviously there are useful web-based services which don’t rely on big datasets.)

    I’ve received an email from Benjamin Usher of the Phorm communications team in direct response to this blog post. I’ve offered him the opportunity of commenting here.

  2. [...] Lab along with some colleagues from the music, media and online industries. One of my posts was an intro to Phorm as I understood [...]

  3. atom says:

    From Rory Cellan-Jones (BBC News Tech correspondent)

    ruskin147: Breaking: Controversial web tracking firm Phorm to unveil “consumer product” on June 3rd

    Original Tweet:

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