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BT Accused of Bad Phorm

March 17 2008

UK 'phone giant BT is facing a possible lawsuit after it admitted using business customers' data without permission, in a trial run for 'Webwise' software from analytics and ad-serving company Phorm. Others including Webfather Tim Berners-Lee have been joining the privacy debate.

According to www.theregister.co.uk , BT Business customer Stephen Mainwaring believes sensitive banking data relating to his online horse racing business was used in a trial last summer, compromising his data security. BT has said in a statement that 'Absolutely no personally identifiable information was processed, stored or disclosed during this trial'. The company added that as with any new technology it wanted to ensure Phorm - which has also been trialled by VirginMedia and TalkTalk - was 'robust and fit for purpose'.

Webwise has been the subject of enquiries by the Open Rights Group (ORG), which says not enough is yet known about its functioning to be sure that it is not 'spy-ware'. Phorm in reply recently told the BBC that its ISP partners take their customers' privacy very seriously and 'have conducted immense due diligence on our technology and internal controls.' It points to a recent audit of its product by 80/20 Thinking, a consulting business founded and run by Simon Davies, a director of Privacy International and a long-term campaigner for consumer privacy.

A poster claiming to speak for Phorm on digital news site www.p2pnet.net said in contrast that the firm's technology is 'a real turning point in the protection of privacy online... it does not store personally identifiable information, does not store IP addresss and nor does it store browsing histories' - unlike other ad targeting with which 'potentially identifiable personal data is stored for over 12 months before it is even anonymised'. Instead Phorm says its software implants a cookie on the user's machine, and only ever correlates site visit data on its own servers with the random number contained in the cookie - not with any other details of the person or computer concerned.

The Web's inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, has waded into the debate with comments in an interview with the BBC. Berners-Lee said he himself wanted his ISP to 'supply connectivity with no strings attached... My ISP doesn't control which websites I go to, it doesn't monitor which websites I go to.' He added: 'I'd say if [monitoring] was an option I wouldn't take it. If it wasn't an option, I would look for another ISP... I don't want to have to think about the secondary implications of going to a site.'

Phorm is confident of persuading Berners-Lee of its virtues, according to the pspnet posting, 'as we have with other experts'. Meanwhile the BBC advises that 'if you'd like to ensure that Webwise is permanently switched off, simply add www.webwise.net to the Blocked Cookies settings in your browser.'

Web sites are at www.bt.com, www.webwise.net and www.bbc.co.uk.

All articles 2006-19 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas.

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