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BBC seen to yield over website snooping

Auntie discovered in bed with big brother

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The BBC has dropped a controversial tracking system from its UK website after privacy activists complained that it was reporting personal information including their post codes to a US company.

Until recently, the BBC was sending copies of cookies dropped on bbc.co.uk visitors to Visual Sciences, a web analytics operation bought in 2007 by Omniture, a Utah-based online marketing firm.

Posters at NoDPI, an internet privacy forum, noticed the accompanying browser redirects to a server owned by Omniture last September. Further investigation showed information sent by the BBC included each user's IP address and post code, which bbc.co.uk collects to target weather reports and other location-specific content.

A trawl of the BBC's privacy policy revealed it did not disclose that it was handing over post codes and IP addresses to Omniture, prompting complaints to the corporation's Information Policy and Compliance Unit (IPC).

In January the IPC replied that the data sharing was part of an initiative by BBC Worldwide, the national broadcaster's commercial arm, "for the purposes of understanding consumption of the site by country (via GeoIP conversion) and to track consumption based on the number of user sessions".

The NoDPI member who raised the issue, an IT expert who asked not to be named, said: "Information given to Omniture included my IP address, my country, my post code, the dates and times I visited the site, the news stories I read and details of every news video clip I watched. You could derive a great deal of information by mining that data."

"Given that the BBC is supposedly licence-funded in the UK, there was no justification for it to provide an online marketing/behavioural targeting company with this data. For purely statistical purposes, the BBC has its own system."

The IPC argued in its response that because Omniture is based in the US it satisfied EU data protection requirements. But it conceded that the BBC privacy policy should "reflect the processing of IP addresses by this US-based, safe harbour-registered service provider".

But now the BBC has decided to stop sending UK users' data to Omniture altogether. In an email sent on Wednesday, it told the NoDPI member: "The BBC has ceased using Omniture in relation to UK users visiting bbc.co.uk or bbc.com from the UK and this has been achieved via geoIP restriction. This means that BBC Worldwide is still able to report on its international audience but that the bbc.co.uk homepage is unaffected by our commercial subsidiary's use of the Omniture/Visual Sciences product."

The broadcaster added that it had updated its privacy policy to disclose its continued Omniture data sharing to international visitors.

The BBC had not responded to a request from The Register to explain the decision at the time of publication. A spokesman said the relevant executive was unavailable.

The NoDPI member who raised the issue said he was pleased the BBC had seemingly reacted to his privacy worries. "I was particularly concerned because my children are regular users of CBeebies online," he added. In its email, the corporation said children's sites had never been included in its Omniture reporting.

Omniture was at the centre of a controversy early last year over the way Adobe software was reporting user activity to the firm's servers. Creative Suite 3 was connecting to Omniture via an unusual URL (192.168.112.2O7.net - note the capital letter "O") that critics charged was deliberately designed to look like an IP address to avoid suspicion.

Omniture insisted that the URL's construction was innocent, but the episode clinched the firm a poor reputation among internet privacy watchers. ®

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