Phorm opponents to picket BT shareholders

Activists refuse to let sleeping data pimps lie

Opponents of BT's involvement with Phorm will protest outside its annual general meeting in London in July in a bid to alert investors to alleged wiretap law-breaking.

The campaigners want BT to pull out of plans to intercept its broadband customers' web browsing and searches and profile them for targeted advertising. They will gather at the Barbican on 16 July to make their case to shareholders and the public.

The protest is being organised by Alex Hanff, a prominent opponent of Phorm and its technology. He said: "The purpose of the protest is to make BT shareholders aware of the past and planned use of allegedly illegal interception technologies to sell behavioural profiles to an ex-spyware company."

"It is very important that ISPs remain conduits as opposed to content managers."

Phorm asserts that its past development and distribution of rootkit software was legitimate adware business activity.

The Downing Street petition against its new network-level adware system has been signed by almost 13,500 people. Hanff said he would be delighted if more than 100 turned up at the Barbican. A website to organise the event is being developed to debut here in the next week.

At time of writing BT representatives had not responded to an email request for comment on the planned protest. This year's AGM will be Ian Livingston's debut as group CEO. He was recently promoted from boss of BT Retail, the division backing Phorm.

Following the AGM in the morning, it's planned that files will be delivered to the Met along with a demand that a criminal investigation be opened into BT's secret trials of Phorm in 2006 and 2007. During the two tests, communications via as many as 120,000 broadband lines were intercepted, profiled and used to target advertising on websites.

Hanff said: "By presenting the Metropolitan Police with a full case file including supporting evidence and witness statements we are hoping that the victims of the covert trials will finally see justice through the prosecution of BT."

Campaigners have been frustrated by an apparent law enforcement vaccuum concerning BT's activities with Phorm. In response to a question from Conservative peer the Earl of Northesk, however, the Home Office confirmed last week that responsibility for investigations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the Computer Misuse Act lies with police.

The Earl has taken a strong interest in the Phorm controversy, and particularly the alleged illegal trials. He raised law enforcement's failure to investigate them in a session of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee last week*.

When we revealed the secret trials, BT Retail's "value added services director" Emma Sanderson made TV appearances to insist its lawyers advised it had done nothing wrong, and that customers had not been let down. Respected experts on RIPA including the Foundation for Information Policy Research's Nicholas Bohm continue to wonder what that advice might have been. BT refuses to grant The Register an interview to ask the question.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is investigating a complaint about the trials under the Data Protection Act and European Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations.

The European Commission has indicated that it is following the ICO investigation and is prepared to intervene. In a letter to several campaigners recently it wrote: "The Comission services will continue to follow this case and possible similar developments and take appropriate action, should the need arise."

The schedule for BT's third trial in partnership with Phorm, now branded "Webwise" has repeatedly slipped. It was originally planned to clast two weeks beginning mid-March, then April, then May.

In response to an inquiry from The Register, a BT spokesman wrote that it does have a timeframe in mind. He did not provide a more specific date, saying that notice will be given at least 24 hours in advance.

This time BT will ask permission from the 10,000 subscribers it aims to profile during the trial. ®

* Audio is here, with the relevant passage beginning at 48 minutes. At the end of the session Home Office minister Vernon Coaker promises to respond in writing.

Sponsored: Today’s most dangerous security threats