Digital privacy wars

Guy Aitchison
23 October 2008

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): The battle for privacy in the digital age is being fought on many fronts (a point last night's seminar on the database state - reported on below by Tom Griffin - made abundantly clear). Some of these battles are being fought more publicly than others. I've been aware of Jacqui Smith's Orwellian plans to permanently store the whole population's electronic communications, including browsing history, in a huge central database since the summer thanks to No2ID flagging up the plans here on OK. But only today was I made aware of Phorm, a sinister new behavioural tracking technology currently being trialled by the country's biggest Internet Service Provider, BT.

Phorm is the subject of a must-read exchange between Peter Bazalgette, formerly of Endemol, the producers of Big Brother (yes, the headlines write themselves), and Becky Hogge of the Open Rights Group. In a speech at the LSE (published this month by Prospect - excert in the FT), Bazalgette argues that by campaigning against Phorm, and other technologies which capture web browsing habits for the purposes of advertising, privacy groups like the ORG are helping to prevent the full economic potential of the web from being realized:

Increasingly, privacy not pipes are the front line in the battle for broadband Britain. Put simply, we expect most of our online entertainment and information free. The music industry has discovered this to its cost, as illegal downloads proliferate. If content is to be delivered free, but with revenue to intellectual property owners, it must be supported by advertisements. Advertisers will do this only in exchange for knowledge of who is receiving their promotional message and when. Technology exists to track our every move online, but such intense scrutiny has led to a state of war between commercial pioneers and privacy campaigners. At stake is a potentially huge expansion of the internet economy.

Privacy advocates, Bazalgette reckons, "do not acknowledge the importance of commerce."

In her response (published online by Prospect), Hogge accuses Bazalgette of viewing the internet solely in commercial terms - it is, in fact, much more. Daily communications and civic engagement now all take place online to the extent that "what we do over our internet connections reveals more about us than any other activity". Turning to Phorm, she writes: 

Phorm subverts crucial, commercial relationships between businesses and their customers. It works by dialling directly into your ISP’s network, intercepting communications between you and the websites you visit, to ascertain what sort of things you are looking at. It's as if the postman were being paid to open every letter he delivered to you, just in order to send you a better class of junk mail.

The postman comparison is a good one and is by no means flippant. It expresses an important truth that politicians and the media so often fail to grasp: we ought to be accorded the same rights to privacy in our digital lives as we are in our non-digital lives. 

Hogge goes on to point out that the activities Phorm will be engaged in cannot comply with the law. This shouldn't be a problem for BT and their clients however since the relevant provisions of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (like most privacy laws) aren't actually enforced. And at a time when government is desperate for private sector investment in broadband infrastructure "Blind eyes could well be turned to legislative niceties in order to allow this investment to take place, for instance by helping BT get more advertising revenue to shore up its bottom line."

Both articles are well worth reading and are being discussed on the Prospect blog.

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