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British Telecom Admits Spying on Customers’ Internet Use

April 07, 2008 08:30 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Britain’s largest telecommunications provider says it monitored customers’ Internet activity without permission, in what may be a violation of data privacy laws.

30-Second Summary

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After customers discovered evidence of the data-tracking, British Telecom admitted spying without users’ notice or permission, but said it did so only during a “small-scale trial” of new software that tracks Internet activity to send people relevant advertising.

Angry customer Stephen Mainwaring said that after noticing “strange things” on his computer he contacted BT, which said it was a virus. He ran virus scans, and even bought a new PC.

“It turns out they were doing secret tests,” he said.

BT insists the company received legal advice and was not breaking the law, but “there's a good argument that [BT’s internet monitoring] is a breach of the Data Protection Act,”  technology lawyer Mike Conradi told UK Channel 4.

BT spokesperson Emma Sanderson said only “a fraction of a percent” of customers were affected. Future trials are planned, but using volunteers only.

BT’s privacy policy tells customers it may collect and share “your personal information,” but “will only do this if you have agreed.”

American Internet giants such as Google commonly use targeted advertising based on Web visitors’ search engine use, but BT’s case is different because it used customers’ Internet Service Providers (ISP) to track every site visited, without telling users.

Privacy experts say even policies requiring customers to agree to such data-tracking may not adequately protect Internet users.

“By having such complete personal data, marketers can target individuals when they are most vulnerable, pushing everything from sub-prime loans to new drugs,” writes the San-Jose Mercury News.

Headline Links: BT caught in Internet snooping case

Related Topics: Online spying and targeted advertising

Opinion & Analysis: Privacy laws may not work against ‘virtual voyeurism’

Reference: U.S. and U.K. internet privacy laws, British Telecom

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