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Plusnet customers SWAMPED by spam but BT-owned ISP dismisses data breach claims

Refuses to notify watchdog despite subscribers' fears

Fawlty Towers

BT-owned ISP Plusnet has rebuffed concerns from customers who are worried that their email accounts have been compromised by spammers.

Despite the protests, at time of writing, Sheffield-based Plusnet was yet to turn itself into the UK's data watchdog – even just as a symbolic gesture to placate subscribers who fear that a possible data breach had occurred.

Register reader Simon tipped us off about what some suspected was a security gaffe on Plusnet's email system. He told us:

On 14th November a number of Plusnet customers started receiving marketing emails from a US company on email addresses they have given to Plusnet for billing purposes.

These customers say they have never given these email addresses to anyone else and are not receiving the same marketing messages to any other email address.

The only apparent conclusion is someone has obtained the billing email addresses of Plusnet customers.

However, despite a 14-page-long discussion thread on the telco's support forum, Plusnet has refused to accept responsibility for the spam attack.

Simon noted to El Reg: "As an ISP, they have an obligation to report data losses to the Information Commissioner's Office [ICO] and are currently refusing. Not a very responsible attitude on their part, given they are meant to be the cuddly face of internet access."

Indeed, we contacted Britain's information cops to flag up the complaints about a possible data gaffe at Plusnet.

An ICO spokesman told The Reg:

Under the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, organisations who provide a service allowing members of the public to send electronic messages (eg telecoms providers or internet service providers) are required to notify us if a personal data breach occurs within 24 hours of becoming aware of the essential facts of the breach.

He added: "If a person still believes that the company has failed to look after their information then they should raise their concerns with Plusnet in the first instance. If they are not satisfied with the company’s response then they can raise the issue with our office providing any supporting evidence that they have, including details of the company’s response."

The ISP has posted an official response to its customers on its support forum. It said:

Plusnet has conducted a thorough investigation into this issue. Our investigations confirm that Plusnet’s Core Systems and Networks, including our subscriber and billing databases, have been verified and we are comfortable there has been no compromise.

Plusnet takes its obligations regarding our customer data very seriously – we ensure we comply with the guidance of the data protection regulator as well as the requirements of the Data Protection Act. All companies that Plusnet work with are required to ensure data is processed securely and in accordance with the Data Protection Act.

Plusnet will continue to monitor its security controls to ensure all data, including customer data, is protected. If we have any further updates on this we will of course let you know.

However, despite being approached by The Register on Friday morning, the company was yet to respond with comment. We were hoping Plusnet would explain why it hadn't reported the matter to the ICO, given the concerns from customers who feared their data has been compromised.

El Reg was told by a company spokeswoman that Plusnet was "looking into this as a matter of priority."

Back on the firm's forum, the ISP's staffer Bob Pullen has been fielding the customer complaints. Among other things, he was asked if Plusnet had contacted the UK's data cops yet. Pullen responded with this humdinger:

The decision to report matters to the ICO lies with out legal and compliance teams. I'm no legal expert (and don't get me wrong, I recognise some of the observations from you guys speak for themselves) but I'm not 100 per cent sure something like this would qualify. Not without explicit and quantifiable evidence that shows one of our systems to have been compromised, something we're almost certain hasn't happened.

That's right, folks, Plusnet is "almost certain" it's in the clear. So you can all rest easy now, right? ®

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