From The Register…
BT secretly intercepted and profiled the web browsing of 18,000 of its broadband customers in 2006 using advertising technology provided by 121Media, the alleged spyware company that changed its name to Phorm last year.
BT Retail ran the “stealth” pilot without customer consent between 23 September and 6 October 2006. The technology was approved, pending a further trial*.
Documents seen by The Register show that the companies used the secret profiles to target advertising at broadband customers when they visited certain popular websites.
Phorm had purchased commercial space on these websites, although their URLs are not included in the documents. The groups targeted included people interested in finance (for an Egg credit card campaign), weight loss (a Weight Watchers campaign), and jobs (a Monster.com campaign).
The technical report drawn up by BT in the wake of the 2006 trial states: “The validation was made within BT’s live broadband environment and involved a user base of approximately 18,000 customers, with a maximum of 10,000 online concurrently.
“The customers who participated in the trial were not made aware of this fact as one of the aims of the validation was not to affect their experience.”
The cant implicit in that last sentence is breathtaking. But the more important question is whether BT has committed a criminal offence. Effectively all 18,000 test subjects were ‘opted-in’ without their knowledge.
BT has not answered The Register’s question, posed on Friday morning, over whether it believes intercepting and profiling the web traffic of 18,000 customers without telling them was a lawful act.
BT also refused to reveal where in the national broadband network the thousands of guinea pigs were sourced from.
One senior source in the broadband industry we spoke to was appalled by BT’s actions. “This is extremely serious,” he said. “Data protection errors are generally viewed as a potentially bad thing by the industry, but not a real threat to an ISP’s reputation. This seems like a breach of criminal law, which is much, much worse.”
Meanwhile, Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, has written to the chairman of BT asking him to explain his firm’s secret trial of Phorm’s advertising technology last summer. And William Hague, the Conservative’s shadow foreign secretary, has written to the Department for Business, Employment and Regulatory Reform, voicing constituents’ opposition to the deals signed by BT, Virgin Media and Carphone Warehouse to spy on the web browsing of millions. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.
If you’re thinking of signing up to a new ISP, you know which ones to avoid.