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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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