Watchdog rules out punishment over Phorm trials

The Information Commissioner's Office says no action will be taken over leaked documents detailing controversial ad-serving trials between BT and Phorm
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor on

The Information Commissioner's Office has ruled out an investigation of BT or Phorm, despite calls from academics for the telecommunications giant to be punished over trials of ad-serving technology in 2006.

Following the publication of a leaked document detailing a trial of the technology by Phorm and BT, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) told ZDNet.co.uk on Monday that the information in the leaked document would not cause it to take any punitive action against the companies.

"The ICO seeks to resolve issues informally," said an ICO spokesperson. "We didn't have the internal [leaked] document, but Phorm and BT did present us with information [after the trial]. We've worked with BT and Phorm and we are not going to take any punitive action at this stage."

The documents confirming details of the trials were leaked onto the Wikileaks website last Wednesday by Alexander Hanff, an IT specialist. The papers gave technical details of the trials, which served ads based on people's web-browsing habits, without their consent.

Speaking to ZDNet.co.uk on Monday, Hanff claimed that the 2006 BT-Phorm trials had contravened the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the Data Protection Act.

"In my opinion, [BT and Phorm] breached several laws in these trials," said Hanff, who added that further trials of the technology planned for the near future could also be in breach of computer legislation. "I don't see how it could work legally, simply because, under RIPA, the trials would require consent from every single website Phorm wants to access, which it's going to be intercepting," said Hanff. "It's just an insurmountable task to be able to do that."

Hanff added that the ICO, which enforces the Data Protection Act, should be taking action, but was not. "It's surprising, given Richard Thomas' [the information commissioner's] warnings that we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society," said Hanff. "If I went down to the ICO and said I'd tapped 10,000 phone lines, I'd be nicked before I could even sneeze. It's a different rule for corporations."

Last week, University of Cambridge computer expert Richard Clayton called for BT to be taken to court over the leaked documents, claiming they showed that BT had contravened a number of laws by performing the secret trials.

The Metropolitan Police Service, which leads on e-crime in the UK, told ZDNet.co.uk on Friday that it had not received any formal allegations regarding the trials.

"The Metropolitan Police's Computer Crime Unit is aware of the situation regarding Phorm and is monitoring the situation," stated a spokesperson for the police force. "We are not investigating any formal allegation in relation to Phorm."

A Phorm spokesperson denied that any UK laws have been contravened by the BT and Phorm trials in 2006, and the company's ad-serving technology.

"We comply with all the relevant UK laws and have been in consultation with the ICO and the Home Office," stated the Phorm spokesperson.

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