The Future of Adware

The current state of the internet has given much indication that annoying programs like adware may be here to stay.  Numerous companies have been singled out by members of the software security industry for their deceptive practices.  Many have since disbanded, some have  reestablished their names by distancing themselves from the adware business and others have developed new approaches that enable them to perform similar operations. 

A New "Phorm" of Adware

Phorm is a digital technology company based in various locations including New York, London and Moscow.  They recently sparked major controversy when announcing discussions with several UK ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to deliver targeted advertising based on the browsing habits of internet users.  The technology would be made possible using a reverse-filtering process known as deep packet inspection.  Phorm is just one of many companies currently in talks with ISPs to analyze consumer behavior and web surfing patterns.  Other names include Front Porch and NebuAd. 

The Plan

Phorm's new vision would involve categorizing a user's interests and pairing that data with advertisers best suited for them.  Virasb Vahidi, the company's chief operations officer, states that they are able to compose these categories as you browse the web.  He goes on to say that the company is equipped with technology that enables them to view the entire internet.  

Vahidi claims that the information collected would be on an anonymous basis, meaning Phorm would never be aware of a user's identity or what they browsed.  The company also offers protection against increasingly employed exploits such as pharming and phishing.  If a user attempts to access a website blacklisted on the Phorm database, it will display a warning that the site is a security risk.  According to another spokesman, users can opt-out of the application but also states that the contents of their system will still be monitored by Phorm.  In order for a user to completely opt-out, they must configure all web-based applications or receive special updates from the Phorm database.  It has since been declared by the ICO (Information Commissioner's Office) that the software would only be lawful in the UK if it were an opt-in service. 

The Problem

Phorm, formerly known as 121media, has been termed as one of the kings of spyware over the years.  Under the previous title, it distributed a very controversial program by the name of PeopleOnPage.  PeopleOnPage was an application built around ContextPlus, 121media's search engine.  ContextPlus was frequently distributed as a malicious rootkit termed by security vendors as "Apropos", a program that used various tricks that prevented users from removing the infection.  ConTextPlus also secretly monitored data and reported it back to the 121media database.  The program was discontinued in 2006 as major lawsuits were filed against several adware vendors involved with ContextPlus. 

Phorm's outlook on advertising has sparked great concern from the public.  As their new move inches closer toward reality, many of the top security software developers are determining how to deal with it in advance.   If these scanners detect this as a potential threat, users will receive notification that their ISP has dropped a Phorm opt-in or opt-out file into their systems, a factor that may raise numerous questions in regard to privacy.

If adware has ever been one of your concerns, you may want to pay close attention to this story as Phorm's evolution could determine how adware effects you in the very near future.   

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