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Phorm For Phones? Updated

Thanks to @NoDPI for highlighting this potentially disturbing and Phormesque sounding development from Telefonica, owners of the O2 and Giffgaff mobile phone services in the UK.  A report in The Guardian details how the company is “developing technology which listens in on personal calls to draw up a psychological profile of a speaker according to their tone of voice”. Those of you familiar with the efforts of Phorm and BT to justify their illegal activities a few years ago will no doubt remember that the EU has clear regulations about this.  As Dephormation reminds us on the NoDPI forum,

In Europe… they will need consent from sender and recipient for it to be legal… and that could be… challenging

Those of you familiar with the efforts of Phorm and BT to justify their illegal activities a few years ago will also remember the denials by BT that anything wrong was going on and Phorm’s claims that their interception was quite legal.  Whether through ignorance, stupidity or political pressure the Police and the ICO did nothing about it. It was only when those offended by such privacy breaches banded together and started campaigning and educating people and the media about the truth that attention started to focus on Phorm.  To the point where Phorm all but disappeared from the UK and the European Commission commenced legal proceedings against the UK government for failing to uphold EU law. So, with all this in mind, do Telefonica really think it’s OK to eavesdrop peoples’ conversations?  Surely, as a telecoms company operating in the EU Telefonica are aware of legislation which applies to them and to this area?  If they are then why have they sanctioned this development?  If they are not aware of the legislation then why are they not aware?  Either way there are questions to be answered by Telefonica. Ovum’s Eden Zoller is quoted in the article as being cautious about this development, and rightly so:

…we think that consumers will be very uncomfortable and resistant to the idea. Consumers are increasingly concerned about how their personal data is exploited, which in turn is reflected by mounting regulatory scrutiny

Damn right. Of course, Telefonica offer their reassurance that

There are no plans to commercialise this and absolutely no intention of offering this information to advertisers

Please excuse my cynicism, but I’ve heard that kind of bulldust before.  Plans change, scope creep gets involved and suddenly more and more people get monitored, with little honest notification and denials after the event.  I have asked O2 and Giffgaff via Twitter if this system will be implemented on their networks. When I phone someone, I do so expecting that, as a law abiding citizen, my calls will not be monitored in any way.  Any tech which threatens or compromises that expectation is a threat to privacy.

UPDATE O2 answered my tweet thusly: O2 response 1

Which comes across as a justification for working on tech that could well break EU law. Surely an EU based telecoms company knows about EU law relating to the field in which they operate? I wasn’t satisfied with that response and said so.  That got a slightly improved reply and a slightly ratty one after it.  Have I rattled someone at O2?  If I have then good.

O2 response 2

Note how the question of obtaining permission from caller and recipient is ignored.

My message to O2 is clear: EU law is clear in its requirements.  If your tech is likely to breach those requirements and the privacy of your customers in any way then you will be held to account publicly.  “Research projects” and “empowerment” are the kinds of marketing speak people like Phorm and BT would have used during their secret and illegal trials of interception technology.

O2 are a mobile phone company.  The best thing O2 can do in my opinion is can that project and work on getting decent 3G coverage throughout the country.  Provide decent connectivity and don’t snoop on my calls.  That’s all I need from my phone company.

Published inethicsphonestelecommunications