Virgin Media is to monitor its customers' data packets in an effort to gauge the level of unlawful file-sharing on its networks.
The company announced on Thursday that it would perform a trial of deep packet inspection technology from Detica to gauge the levels of unlawful file-sharing on its network, on behalf of music companies and other rights holders.
A Virgin Media spokesperson told ZDNet UK on Thursday that customers would not be asked for consent before the trial, and that data would be anonymised.
"There is an element of deep packet inspection," said the spokesperson. "There isn't an opt-in or opt-out for the trial, because it's not affecting individual customers."
The trial, which will cover approximately 40 percent of Virgin Media customers, will use a product called CView by Detica, a BAE subsidiary that until now has dealt almost exclusively with law enforcement and the intelligence services. Detica provides intelligence products.
In CView, web traffic first enters a network device, or 'black box', where IP address information is discarded, Detica media accounts director Dan Klein told ZDNet UK on Thursday. The data packet is then scanned to see if it follows one of the three main file-sharing protocols — BitTorrent, Gnutella and eDonkey — said Klein.
"We don't look at anything else, because we don't have the processing power," said Klein.
If the packet does follow one of those protocols, it is opened to check whether the data inside is licensed. Detica is currently testing different music-fingerprinting products, including Shazam, Gracenote, Digimark and Audible Magic, to gauge whether the file contains licensed or unlicensed data.
Klein added that encryption of data would cause major problems for CView. "Encryption of the data packet would defeat us," he said. "We're not going to put the processing power into defeating it."
Virgin Media executive director of broadband, Jon James, told ZDNet UK on Thursday that the trial will go live "within days". He added that the use of such traffic-monitoring technology was part of its distribution deal with media company Universal.
Privacy campaigners said they were "very disappointed" that Virgin Media is performing the trial without gaining customer consent, and that this may breach European privacy law.
"We're very disappointed that Virgin Media will start trialling the technology," said Alex Hanff of NoDPI. "We feel this breaches the e-Privacy Directive, which says interception of communications requires either consent or a warrant."
Hanff compared the trial to those of Phorm's behavioural advertising technology by BT in 2006 and 2007, which were performed without customer consent. The UK government was told by the European Commission in October that it must strengthen UK privacy safeguards in light of the Phorm trials.
Virgin Media told ZDNet UK it had taken legal advice, and that the trial would not contravene the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) or the Data Protection Act (DPA).
David Meyer of ZDNet UK contributed to this article