PC Pro: Can invasive services survive Britain’s privacy backlash?

Can invasive services survive Britain’s privacy backlash? | News | PC Pro

Barry Collins, PC Pro, Posted on 19 Oct 2009 at 11:26

Former Sun boss Scott McNealy may once have advised that we have ‘zero privacy – get over it’, but it seems the British public isn’t ready to surrender its personal information that easily.

In recent months, a series of companies that were attempting to profit from people’s personal data have become victims of Britain’s growing privacy backlash.

Behavioural advertising firm Phorm – which planned to monitor people’s internet connections in order to display tailored adverts – was effectively sidelined by two of its three British ISP partners, following an intense privacy row.

The controversial mobile phone directory, 118800.com, was also dragged offline because of ‘technical difficulties’, although not before a furore over the way the company acquired its ‘millions of mobile numbers’ had led to a hostile public reaction and a stern warning from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

And when PC Pro revealed how directory website 192.com was selling highly detailed personal profiles of people – including full names, ages, phone numbers, workplaces and even the telephone numbers of their next-door neighbours – several readers were horrified.

‘192.com is no longer a directory, it is a private detective service,’ said Jane Cooper-Smith. ‘It is completely invasive.’

So why has the public suddenly decided to stand up and fight for its privacy? Yaman Akdeniz, founder of Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties UK, has been campaigning on privacy issues for more than a decade, and he believes there ‘are more privacy-conscientious people now in the UK than ever’.

He says the recent examples cited above, as well as ‘social network-related privacy concerns, issues surrounding DNA databases, the constant desire to expand powers for surveillance, and last year’s stories about lost discs with sensitive data, helped to raise awareness about privacy.’

Akdeniz’s claims are backed by data from the Information Commissioner’s Office, which saw calls to its helpline increase by more than 10% last year, to hit a record 112,767 in 2008/9.

The increased focus on privacy no doubt contributed to BT’s decision to put its relationship with Phorm on ice, while rival ISP TalkTalk decided to walk away completely. Despite high-profile critics such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee describing its deep-packet inspection technology as like a ‘video camera in your room’, Phorm claimed ‘privacy was not a factor in BT’s decision making’.

Yet, just a month earlier, Phorm CEO Kent Ertugrul told journalists at a press conference that ‘it would be wrong to say the ISPs aren’t concerned about the bad publicity’ his company attracted over its privacy record.

And let’s not forget this is the same company behind the deplorably punned www.stopphoulplay.com: “the website that hits back at the privacy pirates’ smear campaign against Phorm”.

Alexander Hanff, now of Privacy International and the man described as “the angry activist” on StopPhoulPlay, says there’s been a “shift in the public attitude” to personal privacy. “It’s always been a struggle to fight for privacy in the UK because, as a nation, we had the attitude that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide,” he told PC Pro. “People [now] find it a little bit more concerning.”

He says companies such as Phorm and 118800.com that suddenly appear out of the blue with potentially invasive services face a much rougher ride than well-established brands such as Google and Microsoft. “If you get an unknown company coming into the fray, it’s going to find it more difficult [to succeed],” he said.

What about ICO?

So what of the Information Commissioner? Is Britain’s personal information watchdog ready to reflect the public mood and take a more aggressive stance on infringements of privacy? Outgoing Information Commissioner Richard Thomas called for his office to be given far greater powers before leaving office this year.

The ICO was also unusually outspoken about 118800’s harvesting of mobile numbers, telling The Guardian that: “we made it absolutely clear to Connectivity [118800’s owners] that it should not use numbers where there is any doubt about whether the consumer is happy for their information to be used.”

And what of 192.com? Is the ICO worried about a site selling the kind of personal details that the Government-backed Get Safe Online advises people not to put on the web? “We encourage consumers only to put personal data in the public domain that they’re happy with,” an ICO spokesman told PC Pro, pointing out that people can opt out of having their information published on the electoral roll and in phone directories.

As ever, it seems that if we want to retain our privacy, we’re going to have to lead the fight ourselves.

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