Paying for the government’s privacy pathos

Europe sues UK over online privacy concerns.

News that the European Commission is suing the British government over its failure to tighten up privacy laws is hardly a big surprise - the EC has been trying to get the government to act since BT ran a covert web browsing analysis type-o-thing back in 2006.

BT trialled some technology from a US company called Phorm that monitors your browsing habits in order to offer you more targeted web adverts: so if you were to browse a few websites advertising cars, the next website you were to visit might also feature a car or car insurance ad. Or if you do a few searches for engagement rings and the next time your beloved sits down at the computer she's bombarded with adverts for honeymoons: pure genius.

The major problem with the trial was that BT forgot to mention it to its broadband subscribers, raising a number of issues around privacy. It made a subsequent trial an "opt-in" rather than an "opt-out", but the damage was done.

To be fair, BT insisted it was operating within the law, and when the issue was raised with the City of London Police they agreed. BT customers who complained to the Information Commissioner were also told that the department had no powers to investigate, while the Investigatory Powers Tribunal said - you guessed it - there was nothing it could do either, as it can only act when data has been intercepted by governments.

The EC thought this all a bit off, frankly, and sent a series of stinging letters to the then Labour government saying it needed to comply with the EC's Data Protection Directive and the ePrivacy Directive governing the confidentiality of electronic communications.

It's got no further with the Coalition government, so it's taking it to court. The Home Office is now faced with a case referral to the European Court of Justice, which if successful, could mean fines running into the millions for failure to comply with the European laws (and we all know who will ultimately pay those fines - the taxpayer).

As for Phorm, the company has pretty much given up on selling its ad targeting technology in the UK and headed off to Brazil, after finding a Brazilian ISP prepared to use its technology. Phorm may not have a much easier ride there though - the Brazilian Ministry of Justice has so far given them a pretty cool reception.

A spokesperson for Phorm today told the NS that, "Phorm believes it would be inappropriate for it to comment [on the news] on the basis that it is no longer operating in the UK." To be honest, it's a wonder it's still operating anywhere, having posted losses of $29.7m last year.

As for the Home Office, a spokesperson said that the government was, "Planning to make changes to address the Commission's concerns and will be setting out more detail on any necessary amendments or legislation in due course". Maybe best not to leave it too long this time, eh.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad