StreetView vs. Phorm – which is worse?

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I’ve waited a while to blog about this topic because I wanted to make sure that I got all my facts straight and got a good idea what was being said in the media, but I think it’s time – Google’s StreetView vs. Phorm – which is worse?

Google’s StreetView
In case you haven’t heard about it yet, Google launched a new service in the U.K. about 3 weeks ago. I know this concept isn’t entirely new, and it’s been going on for quite a while in New Zealand and Australia and America, but I guess it brings it home to you when it’s actually in an area where you, personally are.

StreetView gives people a complete 360-degree virtual tour of major cities in England, including every major street and all the buildings on it, using a camera on top of a car that drives everywhere and takes millions of photographs. You might think this is cool – after all, who wouldn’t want to stake out the streets of London and check out all the grand buildings and attractions before heading out? For the directionally-impaired like myself, it’s a dream come true.

I’ll never get lost in London again…

THE CONS: Unfortunately, when I say that StreetView profiles every street, I mean every street – including all the residential roads residing outside the main city centre. I’m using Nottingham as an example, since it’s the closest major city I visit and know well. My best friend lives two towns away from the main city centre. I looked up his address on StreetView, and, bang, I could see his street, his front door, his neighbours crossing the street, the surrounding streets where we had snowball fights in the snow, and his whole town. O_o

If this isn’t bad enough, I decided to research and see how much area StreetView covers in Nottingham outside the main city, and found out that it covers the whole of Nottingham’s Urban Area. This includes 15 towns in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire districts, which have a total population of 666,358 people (as of the 2001 consensus)!

Google’s Become Big Brother
This service makes me really uncomfortable, and I’m so glad that StreetView isn’t yet in Bournemouth. The idea of having my house, front door and town on the internet just feels like an invasion of privacy in the biggest sense. I know the photos are not being updated every single day, but it’s still far too close to comfort. If I’d been caught in any of those photos in Nottingham, I would have made the biggest stink ever. Perhaps you might say that you can’t see that much in the photos, but a while ago an American user complained that you could see her cat in her front window really clearly. If you can see that, who knows what else you can see?

Breaking the Law
While Google might think it isn’t breaking any privacy laws, I beg to differ. There have been multiple complaints about Google having caught people in vulnerable situations – especially two highly-publicised cases, where two male colleagues talking outside a building looked like they were kissing, leading to them and their wives being shamed after the photo was passed around their company, and a woman escaping from a violent partner being caught on StreetView outside her new residence.

Google might say it encourages people to report revealing images and has promised to take them down pronto, but the Daily Mail reports today that since the initial complaints, weeks later, some images are still yet to be removed. In this case, Google is definitely in breach of data protection laws, according to privacy campaigners.

If you were in this picture,
would it bother you?

Blurring Faces in the Photos
In order to try to get rid of objections, Google decided to start blurring people’s faces on the photographs, but come on. You can still see who the people are, from their frame, their hair colour, to their clothing and accessories – I don’t buy it at all. I’m all for 3D virtual tours of major city buildings and famous attractions – which are photographed and chronicled aplenty in TV shows across the world. In this way, StreetView could be considered as providing a service. But no one needs to see residential roads, except if you’re a hit man or a burglar. It’s not as if the new restaurant you’ve been wanting to try out is going to be nestled amongst one of the houses – it’s just voyeurism at its worst.

I raise my pint glass in cheers of support for the plucky villagers of Broughton in Buckinghamshire who stopped the Google camera car from entering their village, and the photographer in Wool, Dorset, who turned his camera on the Google car driver :P

But what about Phorm?
It’s been suggested to me by friends though that StreetView is not the biggest modern privacy problem facing us all, but that the Phorm revolution is far scarier.

Phorm, also known as Webwise, is a company that profiles web users based on their web surfing habits, and then serves up targetted advertisements suited to their interests on the websites they visit. It’s apparently such a successful advertising tool that British Telecom (BT) intends to deploy it this year, and other web providers are in talks to do the same.

A Little Back-History…
Apparently Phorm first made the headlines last year, when it was revealed that BT secretly trialled the service in 2006 on 18,000 customers without their permission. Since then, Phorm have revised their service to be one where consumers can choose to “opt in or out”, and they say that they have now been cleared of breaking any privacy laws by the U.K. government.

Phorm Ad
Is this innocent customised ad
hiding a bigger global problem?

Does that make it okay though?
At first I thought that Phorm is harmless, but now I’m not so sure. I don’t really mind people seeing where I surf when I’m on the web – all you’ll know is that I like Harry Potter and Blythe dolls and that I read a lot of news, which is nothing you can’t find out already from my website. But apparently, according to BBC News, all information you put up on social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace is also getting profiled by the company.

I’m not so sure about how I feel about that. StreetView gives the rest of the world a bird’s eye view to my windows and my front
door, but Phorm means that a company knows everything I like and access… a part of me still feels this is somewhat harmless, as it’s hardly the worst thing in the world to have Twilight T-shirts being flogged at me on Facebook, but I think I would worry if this information was being accessed by the government, as that would be Big Brother-esque surveilance.

What do you think?

P.S.: Just to lighten the mood a bit – Google StreetView apparently caught a mad scientist at work in America… I bet it’s posed, but it’s hilarious… check it out here.

    19 Responses to “StreetView vs. Phorm – which is worse?”

    1. Mick says:

      I seriously think phorm is far worse and I think your own arguments support that. Read between the lines of what you’ve said and you can see that Streetview is only dangerous to people on the extremes of life. Abused wives, secret gay lovers, hitmen. A normal run of the mill guy with normal run of the mill secrets has nothing to hide and no reason to be upset that people can see his house on the web just as easily as they could walk past it in real life.

      On the other hand, Phorm is a threat to everyone. It delves much deeper than just a picture, it’s acutal information. Looking at what I surf every day, you not only find out my likes and dislikes, and my hobbies (already too much in my opinion) but you can very easily work out where I work, where I live, where I might be going out that evening or travelling to that weekend. On the whole, much more frightening I think.

    2. ASonberg says:

      A little more context that you may or may not be aware of. Phorm has a history of past involvement in spyware.

      Back in 2005 and 2006, when the company was known as 121media, it was responsible for some software called PeopleOnPage and ContextPlus. This software was distributed with the Apropos Rootkit and was categorised by the Computer Security company F-secure as spyware. Do you really want to trust your entire browsing history and everything you do online to a company with that sort of history?

      Secondly, so far, you can only opt out of receiving the adverts. The only way to opt out of the snooping (Deep Packet Inspection) is by changing your Internet Provider which in some more remote parts of the country may not even be possible.

      Don’t get caught up on the advertising. None us campaigning against Phorm are particularly against behavioural advertising. We ARE against DPI and illegal interception of communications.

    3. phormaverse says:

      A thoughtful reflection on two current threats to privacy – well done.

      My take is that there is good news and bad news about StreetView. The good news is that the camera cars are on the public highway and only see what someone can see from a bus seat. The bad news is that they then put the result on Google Earth where the whole world can see it, very very easily and know exactly where it is. That’s a serious invasion of privacy – the publishing of the picture with a clear geographical reference.

      With Phorm however, it is all bad news for the user. Because the Phorm supplied, Phorm programmed, DPI kit doesn’t look from the outside, it gets inside your ISP and sits between you and the internet, intercepting your every keypress and mouseclick, and reading every webpage you access. It opens and reads your “internet communication” like the postman opening your mail. You get no choice about this interception. The only choice is about the ads. And you are right – it will be reading those private pages on Facebook because it doesn’t know how to avoid them. And it totally ignores the issue of seeking consent from webmasters – even if they have a prohibition notice on their front page.

      Oh yes – relevant adverts – yeah, great. Thanks. I’ve been desperate for those, can’t think how I survive without them.

      Phorm is worse than StreetView – and it is far far worse than any other form of Behaviourally Targeted Advertising too. Street View and other forms of BTA don’t intercept your communications and enter your private space. Phorm does. It’s different, and its dangerous.

    4. admin says:

      Thanks for the comments, ASonberg and Phormaverse… just wondering… did you find my blog entry through the search engines?

    5. Asonberg says:

      Hi admin.

      I found your site via a mention on the NODPI website. Thank you for covering the issue too.


    6. Mark says:

      Good blog Mary-Ann.

      I notice from elsewhere on your site that you are a trained web designer, so I will suggest another way phorm might affect you.

      Suppose you design a site for a small business. Just as an example, they sell cameras. The owner is an enthusiast and blogs on the site putting in a lot of effort to bring people to the site.

      Phorm then identifies these visitors as camera enthusiasts and serves up an add for a major high street camera retailer.

      All that effort used by phorm to direct visitors to a competitor. Phorm could kill off small, enthusiast-run businesses.

      I don’t like streetview either, but phorm is much worse.

    7. Dephormation says:

      Just to add a little to the few comments about Phorm.

      With Streetview, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t find a picture of yourself on there, thankfully.

      Phorm you can’t avoid at all (unless you move to a new ISP).

      Your concern about Phorm will depend on the extent to which you rely on the net for work, health, banking, business, news, or pleasure. For some people who are very dependant on the internet, having someone subject them to surveillance is very intrusive indeed. Phorm will observe everything that passes infront of your eyes.

      Phorm works by intercepting your telecommunications.

      Web traffic is just communication data. Email traffic, SMS traffic, voice over IP, and ordinary telephone communications are all ultimately just communication data. Phorm is the “thin end of a wedge” that risks ultimately depriving us all of the right to private unencrypted communication services.

      Private communication is essential for a democratic economy. It underpins freedom of speech, freedom of association, democracy, online and offline commerce… the right to read, write, and say what you like. It is a Human Right.

      For web site creators, Phorm adds insult to injury by copying/processing/exploiting the content of your sites and private communication with your visitors, to profile and target your visitors with advertising. You won’t get paid royalties for this copyright violation, your consent for interception won’t be obtained.

      It is mass population surveillance, copyright/trademark abuse, and industrial espionage on an epic scale.

      Phorm must be stopped.

    8. 2twit2hoo says:

      I don’t really care about street view it’s fun I went down the road I grew up in and it saved the petrol driving back North! I’m like you on Phorm at first it sounded just like something totally harmless an exactly like what I’m told already goes on anyway. But one day recently I looked at my own history in firefox and saw how personal it was to me. Not embarrassing and certainly not illegal but just personal. It summed up my life, the football team I support and the TV shows I like and which newspaper I read. The bank I use and the town I live in (local rag website). Scary

    9. Kitskat says:

      I have had experience of the Google street car arriving at my son’s home I turned in one end of the street as the car was coming the other way. I have no problem with this not even worried if they failed to block out my regiustration number correcty. Anyone can take the cars registration number at anytime on any street.

      What I do dislike is the way Phorm using the webwise technology snoop into my personal space. Leaving me no way past the profiler the sees everything I see. That can alter websites I see before I see them.

      This is interception of my personal details they claim to anonymise them but if enough data is gathered then I can be identified.

      Trust I would trust Google to take pictures of my street but I wouldn’t trust Phorm to not look at my perssonal details on the website.

    10. 2wit2hoo says:

      Actually I’ve just started to reflect on what I said earlier and I’m starting to think that street view may not be as harmless as I first thought. Having reread all the previous comments plus a couple of other articles on street view I am now seeing how the problem with street view is not the photos but the publishing of them in a prominent place where others within their neighbourhood may find them.

      I read about pictures of [men] going into sex shops. That is their right lets not judge.

      People make a conscious decision on each of their actions and some psychologists would say they take a “benefit” decision. Each action has potential rewards but carries potential risks.

      A man (or woman) wants to go into a sex shop and takes a risk calculation on who else might spot them. The reward side of the calculation is fairly obvious!

      They can take precautions against being spotted, look out whos around me etc. and, and this is important, they will probably also think if theyre actually spotted by someone they know its probably not going to be too bad on the embarrassment front.

      Whoever sees them probably wont tell anyone they care about plus he or she has no proof so if someones trying to smear someone else e.g. a politician then it’s just based on word of mouth.

      Street view adds a whole new dimension. Many more people are likely to spot someone they know because its not just passers by but many more people and the number of people increases with time.

      Also if someone sees something funny, embarrassin or odd they may email the actual evidence to friends and very quickly its all out.

      Before long people may not want to go to certain places because of the risk of being spotted. I don’t think this is good for freedom and human rights.

      But also with Phorm I think this also could be true. People may not want to go to websites because they’re afraid of the embarassment of people watching even though an actual person isnt actually watching i think it could a problem because of the perception. I used to believe the “nothing to hide nothing to fear” argument but isn’t it a man or womans right to go into a sex shop or look at pornography online?

      I know ive used a gutter example but that may also be true of other things I just cant think of right now.

      So to summarise I think the law of right to photograph in the street is ok, you can’t have a situation where bbc news cant film in public because of privacy laws. You also cant have peoples rights to take photos in public taken away just look at the police would have gotten away with Ian Tomlinson.

      But the law doesn’t take into account modern technology where a fleeting moment can be captured so permanently in such a pervasive manner.

      But I can’t see how this can be corrected can we maintain the previous status quo allow news reporeting etc but disallow street view?

      Thanks so much for your incisive blog posting which I found through twitter.

    11. admin says:

      Hi everyone, thanks for all the comments, keep them coming! I’m a fledgling blogger, so if you like what you’re reading, please subscribe to my RSS Feed and check my blog every so often. I’ll try to keep the blogging topics fresh and interesting, and if you’ve got any ideas you’d like me to research and explore, do let me know using the Contact Form.

      Thanks and have a great day! :)

    12. kishon says:

      i think that both phorm and streetwise r scary i like my privacy and feedom i dont like big brother in any form

    13. Dr Strabismus says:

      Don’t be fooled by Phorm’s so-called opt-out. It’s a cookie opt-out method, and whenever you clear cookies yo just have to opt-out all over again, every time.
      Worse though – even if you are “opted-out” you still go through the ISP-operated, Phorm-owned equipment. BT has said this unequivocally.
      And if you think you can block Phorm using your HOSTS file in Windows, then think again. Add to the list and you have no internet access at all. BT have acknowledged this.
      Call that freedom of choice?

    14. Dr Strabismus says:

      Oops something got deleted. That should read “add to the list and you have no internet access at all.”

    15. GeordieF says:

      We also were able to block the StreetView cams from our area in Belfast,(around 1,000 homes). No-one has any way of blocking Webwise/Phorm unless they move to an ISP who states publicly they will never use the system. I`ve nothing against targetted advertising, however I do soooo dislike 121Media`s DPI.
      All credit to nodpi, dephormation and all other privacy advocates for keeping this in both the media and in the public interest.
      Roll on Sept when my contract runs out.

      As an aside, I`m on BT Business BB and `phoned to complain about their lousy line speed. When I stated I was SERIOUSLY looking at Be LLU on my local Exchange my speed increased by 100KBps within 24 hours. Hmmmmm

      Congrats on entering the world of bloggers!!

    16. phormaverse says:

      To answer your question – I too found this excellent blog via the nodpi site – see my name link on this post.

    17. SelfProtection says:

      Placed on the nodpi Website via a linked search to twitter from nodpi itself :)

      The Title should read Streetview vs. Webwise however, since Phorm is the Company Name & Webwise is their Product. :)

    18. hank says:

      Not a bad start at all… Someone already mentioned:

      Phorm is a company like Google.

      Streetview is a product or service.

      Webwise is one name for one of Phorm’s rather unpleasant services, you’ll also hear of Smartweb if you continue your research… Smartweb and Webwise appear to be the same thing and Smartweb is being forced on Korean web users by their unscrupulous ISPs.

      I’m anti Deep Packet Inspection when it is used as Phorm wants to use it. It has good uses, but not this purpose of advertising.

      If I was comparing Webwise and Streetview the difference for me is that Streetview MIGHT capture me in a picture or two at that moment in time, whereas Phorm’s system is there all the time once it is connected and running.

      To be as “privacy enhancing”, Google’s camera would have to follow me everywhere, all the time, to work, to my bank, to Currys, to a cafe where I chat and they listen to all I say and hear… No, Google is not as invasive as Phorm! Phorm’s system DOES these things, always there, watching and listening, writing down keywords about you and claiming to forget what it sees or hears if you opt out. It claims you are anonymous, yet it assigns a unique number to you, personal to you… Truely privacy enhancing. It’s a revolution in privacy alright, and the revolution is redefining what privacy means without engaging fully with the 60m people in the UK affected.

      Good blog post. Good start. Join us all at NoDPI. Hank.

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