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Peer protests BT's Phorm trials

At a protest against the trials of the ad-serving technology, peers, protesters and BT shareholders aired their grievances

Topic: Security
1 of 6 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Miller joined a protest, held outside BT's annual general meeting in the Barbican Centre, London, on Wednesday, against the 2006 and 2007 trials of the ad-serving technology Phorm.

Miller was protesting against what she characterised as "illegal" trials of the technology, which were performed without gaining BT customers' consent. There were around 15 people involved in the protest.

"The fact is BT conducted illegal trials," Miller told ZDNet.co.uk. "They intercepted people's communications without their consent. That can't be any more legal than someone slitting open a letter addressed to me and reading the contents."

Although both the Home Office and the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) have said they will not take action over the trials, Miller said that she will be asking questions in Parliament regarding the adequacy of data-protection laws.

"If the trials were not illegal, which they should be, it is because the law hasn't kept pace with technology," said Miller. "Is the government up to the job of regulating what's happening? Is the legislation out-of-date, or is it that the government isn't enforcing it properly? I'm very concerned that the government isn't on top of this issue. The buck stops with them to regulate what ISPs are doing."

Miller claimed targeted ad technology was unpopular with citizens in the UK. A New Media Age survey published on Wednesday found that 65 percent of UK adults would leave their ISP if it introduced targeted behavioural advertising.

2 of 6 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Alexander Hanff, an IT specialist who organised the protest, said protesters were aiming to raise awareness among BT shareholders.

"We've been handing out flyers to shareholders," said Hanff. "These technology trials were wrong, illegal under British law, immoral and offensive. In order for the technology to be legal, there needs to be consent [from everybody involved]."

3 of 6 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Hanff suggested that the relatively small number of protesters outside the annual general meeting was a result of its mid-week, work-day timing.

4 of 6 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Peter Morgan, BT's director of communications, denied that BT had done anything illegal in conducting the 2006 and 2007 trials, and said BT had consulted the ICO after the trial.

"We absolutely, strenuously deny any suggestion we've done anything illegal or unethical," said Morgan. "We've taken extensive legal advice from both solicitors and barristers. The ICO has taken a close look at the trials, and it is satisfied they were not illegal. [Alexander Hanff] is wrong — plain and simple."

BT plans more trials of Phorm's technology and has, since April this year, been saying the trials will take place "in the coming weeks".

Morgan said the trial had not yet gone ahead, due to technical issues.

"We haven't firmed up the dates [for the upcoming trial] yet. It will be in the coming weeks," said Morgan. "We just want to make sure it's technically ready for trial, and make sure the people participating in the test are trialling a technically robust service."

The protest against Phorm's technology, which BT will rebrand 'Webwise', would have no impact on BT's upcoming trial, said Morgan.

"There is a tiny but vocal minority who believe there is an issue here," said Morgan. "It is a very small protest. When we've spoken to customers, they've been interested and see the benefits. We don't get the impression it's a significant shareholder issue."

When ZDNet.co.uk approached some of the shareholders at the AGM, they said they had been completely unaware of the trials until a question had been raised at the meeting by one of the protesters, who had managed to gain entrance.

"There was a question raised about that Phorm business," said one of the shareholders, who preferred to remain anonymous. "I didn't know anything about it before. BT should have let the shareholders know about the trial."

When asked about the legality of the trial, the shareholder said: "In this day and age, people should be asked before a trial like that."

When asked whether the protester's question had been fully answered by the chairman, another of the shareholders said he had been "brushed aside", while another said that BT was, perhaps, trying to avoid adverse publicity. "The question was addressed only so-so," said the shareholder. "Maybe BT doesn't want bad publicity because the shares are already at rock bottom."

BT's share price has fallen from a high of approximately £15 per share to under £2 per share in a decade, said the shareholder.

5 of 6 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Protester Stephen Mainwaring was one of the people affected by the 2007 trial. Mainwaring said that he had noticed his PC was connecting to a site called 'sisip.net'.

"Every site I was visiting would connect to that site; there would be a redirect, indicated in the status bar in the bottom-left-hand corner of my screen," said Mainwaring. "I phoned BT and said: 'Why am I connecting to sisip.net?' They told me I must have a virus."

Mainwaring said he scanned his computer and could find nothing wrong, but continued to be redirected. He escalated the problem within BT's support network but was continually told he "must have a virus".

Mainwaring found that sisip.net was hosted by 121Media, which became Phorm. At the time, 121Media was being accused of foisting spyware on innocent users, so Mainwaring said he "feared the worst" — that his computer could have been infected. He purchased a new computer system. That system encountered the same problems, and BT continued to insist he had a virus. Then he found out that BT had been holding exploratory talks with 121Media to set up a platform, and finally that BT had conducted the trial.

"Once BT admitted that the trials had been going on, I was horrified because it had a major impact on my business," said Mainwaring, who runs his own horse-racing statistics company. "I had to shut down for three days. I went and bought a brand new PC off the shelf. I have to comply with the Data Protection Act and, when this was going on, I had to assume the worst — that customer data had been compromised. I was so worried I couldn't sleep for three nights, thinking I'd have to close my business and lose credibility. What got me annoyed was BT saying I had a virus when the problem was on the ISP side."

6 of 6 Tom Espiner/ZDNet

Although BT has strenuously denied that its trials were illegal, Hanff is convinced that they were. On Wednesday, Hanff handed a case file to the City of London Police station in Wood Street, detailing instances where he believes BT broke the law.

"I can't guarantee that BT will be prosecuted," said Hanff. "It's been a nightmare to get anyone to have a look. The police have been saying it's a matter for the Home Office; the Home Office said it was for the police."

Hanff believes BT contravened several laws, including the Computer Misuse Act; the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act; the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act; and the Data Protection Act. Hanff said he also believes BT contravened the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations.

The police are currently in the process of reviewing Hanff's file.

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