People often concentrate rather too much on abuses by the state of personal data. But private sector organisations are certainly no better. One key example was made public this week, when the new UK Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, announced that he would be prosecuting a major mobile phone company (he is not saying which one yet*) for selling personal information which it held on customers. The trade in personal information is a very difficult thing to regulate: telecoms companies will deny up front that they ever do anything like this, but yet we know it happens frequently in every jurisdiction, in both management-sanctioned and illicit forms; and practically, of course, once the information is ‘out there’, it cannot be recalled. So, no-one should feel safe just because they have ticked (or unticked) that little box under all that often indeciferable text about what a company might do with your data. I hope that whatever firm this is, it gets hits where it will hurt most, on its bottom line.
*Update: T-Mobile have now confirmed that they are the company responsible.
Like Canada, the UK is pushing forward with new plans to force telecommunications companies and ISPs to retain online data, despite opposition from both the industry and ordinary service users. The New Labour govenrment had delayed the plans from last year, faced with the strength of the opposition and launched a ‘consulation’. The consultation apparently still generated 40% opposition, which one would think was enough to tell them that something was wrong. But, as I said last year, “the collection of such traffic data will still go ahead… partly at least because the Americans want it; there is pressure on many countries for this kind of data collection and storage – see for example, the FRA law in Sweden. Networking these databases together with others is a major aim of the FBI’s secretive ‘Server in the Sky’ project.”
However, now the UK plans go further than many other countries’ schemes in this area, as they would cover not only traffic data but also a whole range of data which would not normally have been regarded as traditional communications like social networking activity and even internal online gaming data. This would seem to be in line with US programs that regard the behaviour of – let’t not forget, fantasy – game and virtual world avatars as somehow indicative of real-world tendencies and practices (e.g.: Projects VACE and Reynard), an extremely dubious assumption and one which extends the reach of the state into people’s fantasy and dream lives.
The BBC story mentions an estimated 2Bn GBP (around $3.5 CAN) cost for this – which will no doubt be passed on to service users – but given the immense problems posed by some of this data, I would reckon that this could a massive underestimate, especially if one takes into account the UK state’s history of appallingly-managed computerisation and database-building schemes. The original plans also would have allowed all agencies empowered under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to make use of such data, and the RIPA consultation response from the UK government did contain some indications that some new agencies would be given powers of access, but I am still not sure whether the government will keep the list of agencies as long as it was in last year’s draft Communications Bill.