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BT targets 10,000 data pimping guinea pigs

Privacy policy being ripped up for Phorm

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BT is preparing to test Phorm's advertising targeting technology on 10,000 of its customers this month, to gauge people's reaction to their web browsing being exploited for extra revenue.

The trials will begin mid-March and guinea pigs will be drawn from BT Retail's consumer broadband subscriber base. The firm believes customers will be impressed by what it calls a "safer, more relevant experience".

Phorm will read the websites the test subjects visit and use their contents to serve up targeted advertising when that computer is used to visit other popular sites, including The Guardian and MySpace.

BT sent us this statement about the imminent experiment:

The trial invitation will be presented through a special web page that will appear when those customers start a web browsing session. At this point, those customers invited can choose to switch on BT Webwise, choose not to take part, or to find out more information.

The www.bt.com/webwise site also contains detailed information on the service and a one-click option to switch the service off, which can be activated at any point during the trial. The BT Privacy Policy and BT Total Broadband Service Terms will be amended accordingly.

BT's current privacy policy states: "We do not use this [browsing] information to analyse your visits to any other websites." Once Phorm is deployed that is obviously no longer true.

Questions have also been raised over the legality of the system under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Professor Peter Sommer, a leading expert in computer surveillance at the London School of Economics, believes the only way it will be legal is if the ISPs obtain consent from the user it wants to spy on.

As seen in its statement above, BT emphasises that the ad targeting can be switched off easily (it plans to opt-in BT Broadband users when the full system goes live in the fourth quarter of 2008).

However, according to a spokesman for Phorm, the way the opt-out works means the contents of the websites you visit will still be mirrored to its system. Profiler hardware (see network diagrams here) will simply not categorise the pages or attempt to serve up target ads.

Yet the traffic is still being intercepted as far as RIPA is concerned.

BT said: "BT is, of course, aware of the legal requirements regarding interception of communications under RIPA. We consider that these steps [above] will meet the legal requirements of RIPA and also ensure that customers are able to take a fully informed decision as to whether to take the service."

Virgin Media and Carphone Warehouse have also signed up to sell browsing data to Phorm. Virgin Media says it is "still some way" from its own implementation. ®

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