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Phorm launches data pimping fight back

CEO Kent Ertegrul on spyware, bullshit and opting-out

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I Spy

Were you working with BT last summer when Register readers noticed suspicious redirects to sysip.net?

KE: We've been working with BT for quite some time. The announcement wasn't the product of a couple of weeks' discussions.

The BT engineers evaluated our system, but I can't comment on the exact nature of any evaluation that they did.

I understand that BT has said it's looking into exactly what happened when people were seeing sysip.net [see here for the original story] and I think that what you're going to find is that it will respond shortly but we have to defer to them.

[Hello BT press office. You have our number. It's good to talk.]

Ok, but one thing that has come across from our readers is that people think the way it's being sold to them as ISP customers is slightly underhand in that they're being told it's an anti-phishing technology.

KE: It's not being sold to anybody. All we've said is "this is what we're doing". There's nothing underhanded about that at all. Very often there's quite a big difference between what things appear to be and what they actually are.

Well exactly. BT have got their on/off page up already (here) and it says nothing about your browsing being passed to a third party.

KE: It's important to understand the distinction between actually recording stuff and concluding stuff. All of our systems sit inside BT's network. Phorm has no way of going into the system and querying "what was cookie 1000062 doing?". And even if we did we have no way of knowing who 1000062 was. And even if we did all we could pull out of it is product categories. There's just no way of understanding where you've been, what you've done, what you've searched for.

I'm not interested in fobbing you off.

So if I'm opted out, data passes straight between me and the website I'm visiting? It doesn't enter Phorm's systems at all?

MB: What happens is that the data is still mirrored to the profiler but the data digest is never made and the rest of the chain never occurs. It ought to be said that the profiler is operated by the ISP, not us.

One of our sources has suggested that during discussions with the ISPs last year, Phorm was pushing the idea of actively injecting advertising into the data stream. Is that true?

The only thing your going to get direct from the ISP is something telling you you're about to screw up and gve up your credit card details.

KE: If you go back in history, when we first started this we were talking about an interstitial ad [effectively a pop-up, except injected into the main browser window]. We soon understood that's just a non-starter so we dropped it. Now this is only about showing ads inside websites.

Ad injection is not going to happen. The only thing you're going to get direct from the ISP is something telling you you're about to screw up and gve up your credit card details.

Right, so the anti-phishing stuff - this is just a sideline isn't it? It has nothing to do with your actual business.

KE: It's the same technology. We have one of our channels maintain a list of known phishing sites.

Yes, there are solutions out there that guard against phishing and so on, but you've got to download it, you've got to update it. Ours is a real time method of stopping any phishing site. It actually interrupts your browsing and says "wait a minute, are you sure you want to do this?".

There are options in Firefox and IE that do that already.

KE: I know, but how many people do you think actually use that?

MB: This is a way of helping people who aren't necessarily tech-savvy.

KE: You could argue that we're so evil why would we bother, but the reality is quite a few people, the least tech-savvy, are the most likely to give up their bank details to phishing sites.

BT and the ISPs feel legitimately that they can improve the customers' experience by protecting them. The main response from the market research on this was "why aren't they doing this automatically anyway?".

Because there's been no money in it for them.

KE: Well, of course this is a commercial opportunity for them. The anti-phishing and the ad-targeting - both need to see where you go.

But again, say a disgruntled Phorm employee broke into the system and stole all the data, what is it they would have? A series of random numbers, some product categories, and time stamps. That's literally all there is.

So now the core issues seem to be whether it's safe and whether people are getting anything out of it.

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