May 20, 2024

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A Threat to All Our Privacy – Bad Phorm Old Boy

With The Foundation for Information Policy Research [F.I.P.R] (a leading campaigner on the protection of digital rights), and Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the founder of the World Wide Web) warning about threats to our online privacy what does the future of internet look like for the average user?

Firstly we need to consider what the threats are and why they have come to the fore. The Internet, in its conception, offers all of us an unprecedented opportunity for freedom of expression. What’s more, it presents a tantalizing opportunity for us to wrestle the control of mass media away from the traditional brokers of power. In essence it means that we no longer need to suffer the indignity of being force fed the “official view”. The Internet truly is democracy in action.

Now I think we all acknowledge that most of us use the Internet either as a means of communication or a source of entertainment. It will therefore come as no surprise to anyone that statistics (according to Alexa.com) reveal the sites that receive the largest number of visitors (excluding the major search engines) are either social networking, file sharing or porn sites. Whilst this does not perhaps reflect well upon the “Internet for a greater good theory” it does at least demonstrate that the Internet is a user led system which truly reflects the whole sphere of human interest (however base it may be).

However the same statistics also reveal that the top 100 most visited sites (again excluding the search engines) still account for only a small proportion of total Internet traffic. The Internet is vast and diverse, there is a wealth of information out there and a healthy degree of skepticism is required for nearly all of it. Nonetheless the potential for a genuine liberty of ideas remains.
For that reason it is with a sense of foreboding that I note the recent observations of both Sir Berners-Lee and the FIPR. Far from offering liberty for all the Internet has actually become the biggest threat to our individual privacy since the advent of the printing press. Unfortunately this seems to be, in no small part, due to our own carelessness. The information that we post on sites such as Facebook, YouTube and, for that matter, this one is not only viewable by practically anybody else but will also remain in perpetuity (unless we remember to remove it of course).
It is easy to see that a little more discretion is required by those of us who wish to maintain our privacy. This seems a fairly simple step to take to preserve our security but unfortunately it may not be enough. Not only do our governments tend to lose massive amounts of our personal data but there is also a far more pervasive threat to our personal liberty.

The market research company “Phorm”have recently been in negotiation with three of the U K’s biggest internet service providers (BT, Virgin Media and Talk Talk) and, it seems, contracts have been agreed. Phorm, amongst others, possesses the technology to scrutinize any individuals surfing habits and can provide advertisers the data they require to provide “personalized advertising”. There has been some debate about whether this should be an ‘opt in’ or ‘opt out’ element of your internet service provision but, either way, we are all going to have to inspect our service agreements very carefully.

For its part, Phorm (already a multinational corporation) insists that it does not keep internet “clicktrails” permanently and offers an internet security service by warning users when they are about to enter details on ‘phishing’ sites. Despite these claims Facebook has already used statistics gathered this way within it’s much criticized ‘Beacon’ system and the projected annual revenue generated by BT, should they use Phorm’s services, has been estimated at over £80 million ($160 million). So it seems unlikely that objections will be heeded.

Of more concern perhaps is the possibility of misuse of the same technology. For example it would enable insurance companies to increase the premiums of customers who frequently check HIV prevention sites; governments could monitor the online activities of anybody they felt were ‘undesirable’ without court jurisdiction; banks could refuse credit for ‘unwise spending’. This is not to mention the criminal potential.

So whatever the future holds it seems inevitable that the days of surfing the net without the need to consider protecting our privacy along the way are already gone.