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Qualcomm buys into Phorm-alike firm

Data gathering on the hoof

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

The ad-fatigued may groan at the news that Qualcomm has splashed out $32m on data-gathering outfit Xiam. The Irish company specialises in analysing the habits of mobile phone users in order to target advertising at them, and has customers including Orange UK.

Targeted advertising is all the rage these days, but the ways in which the necessary data is gathered is still the subject of hot debate. Xiam makes great play of its ability to profile users just by watching what they do without requiring configuration, and Orange UK apparently "supplies Xiam with data including billing information, mobile browsing logs and purchase history".

Orange assured us that the "browsing logs" only refers to on-portal usage (within Orange World), and "billing information" relates to purchases made from the operator. However, Portal Relevance Manager Jim Small is quoted as saying that 2008 will be the year when the service is "rolled out fully into all download content areas and beyond into browsing content in third-party off portal services".

We asked Orange if it was serious about this, but met with silence. Xiam has the technology to do it, but is understandably coy about what information its customers are using to profile subscribers, as it is the network operator's decision what to collect.

The Xiam system does, theoretically, keep the identity of the subscriber anonymous. Its servers simply profile the numbered individual and serve adverts when requested - it has no way of knowing who that individual is, only gleaning info as to their hobbies and interests.

No one seriously objects to their progress through a specific site being monitored, and users expect Google and their ilk to be targeting advertisements. But if an ISP, mobile or fixed, starts intercepting connections to other services for profiling purposes, then users have a right to call foul.

Qualcomm intends to integrate the Xiam technology into its platforms, as well as continuing to offer the stand-alone product, giving its customers the potential to profile mobile users in the same way that BT intends to use Phorm to work out what their fixed-broadband customers are doing.

Xiam can be used to monitor only on-portal behaviour, and that's presumably what Qualcomm initially intends (the company hasn't commented to us as yet). Still, it will be interesting to see if any mobile operator is prepared to risk the wrath of its customers and follow BT down the dark all-activity-profiling alley. ®

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