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Liberty: Observer story takes liberties

Newspaper conjures data endorsement for mobile operators

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Updated The civil rights group Liberty has rubbished a newspaper report that it has been approached by several UK mobile operators in an attempt to win its public support for their data protection policies. If such an approach had been made it would have been rejected on principle, Liberty told The Register.

The lead of The Observer report that prompted Liberty's comment said: "Mobile phone companies are seeking an endorsement from Liberty, the civil rights group, to assuage consumer concerns over possible misuse of the private data they hold on file".

No they don't

The story, which was published on Sunday and at time of writing is running prominently on the technology site of sister newspaper The Guardian, claimed that "several" firms had approached Liberty for an endorsement that they will not misuse data. At first glance it might not seem a far-fetched idea: public awareness of data loss and privacy remains high, and given the central role they play in modern lives mobile phone operators are apt to attract plenty of suspicion.

But the substance of the story was odd. Although Liberty has campaigned extensively on data protection and privacy law, it has no particular technical expertise that would qualify it to certify huge mobile networks' back end systems. Even more strange is the question of why would it consider lending its reputation to multinationals who make a killing selling data to third parties and plan a new market in tracking their customers' locations on behalf of commerce.

This was surely a big story then; a potential major change of culture and strategy at an organisation that offers one of civil society's highest profile public voices. That surely merited more investigation than The Observer's four paragraphs.

Yet the story contained no quote or paraphrasing of Liberty's position on commercial endorsements. The Observer had called Liberty for basic checks of its story, hadn't it?

"No," said a spokeswoman for the group. The Register's call on Monday was the first it had heard of the story or any alleged approach. Gareth Crossman, Liberty's policy director, said: "Liberty is an independent human rights organisation. We would not compromise our independence by endorsing private companies or products."

Hmm... then the story is - gasp! - fiction!

Just in case, we rang all five operators in an attempt to track down the "several" of their number who supposedly sought the impossible endorsement. Here's their responses:

3: Did not approach Liberty

O2: "This is not us."

Orange: PRs said they're still working on finding out.

T-Mobile: PRs said they were unable to confirm its position before publication of this story.

Vodafone: "We haven't been in conversation with Liberty on this issue."

To summarize then: three out of five mobile phone operators said they never approached Liberty. The other two's PRs said couldn't find out*. But Liberty said no mobile operator approached it. If they had Liberty would not have discussed any endorsement under any circumstances.

Still, The Observer's story went on to sagely observe that, "No deals have been signed, but if industry players could secure Liberty's endorsement, it would be a coup for those attempting to persuade users that they can be trusted with such private data". It would indeed be a coup for mobile operators to extract a blessing from a respected civil rights group that has no history of nor interest in such arrangements - especially if they were to manage it without even trying.

But perhaps if 3, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone would seek to allay fears over data it would be simpler for them to take their cue from the newspaper industry, which created the "self-regulating" Press Complaints Commission at least in part to convince the public of its commitment to the truth. Oh, wait...

Before we were due to file this article, Liberty got back in touch to say it would be writing to The Observer to criticize the story and clarify its position. ®

*We'll update this story if they ever do. However, of the five network operators, Orange and T-Mobile are the two to have outsourced their press offices to PR agencies and past experience indicates we shouldn't hold our breath.

Update

Orange's in-house press representation rang on Wednesday morning to confirm that it never contacted Liberty.

Update 2

T-Mobile rang on Wednesday afternoon to confirm that it didn't approach Liberty. That makes a full house.

Bootnote

The Observer was recently forced to apologise after it accused the human rights charity Survival of misleading the media over a supposedly "undiscovered" tribe in the Amazon. It hadn't.

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