Internet: BT and Phorm

House of Lords written question – answered on 29th September 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Home Affairs

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they first became aware of BT's trials of behavioural targeting systems in 2006 and 2007; and what action they took; and

On what date the Home Office first received enquiries seeking its view of the compatibility of Phorm/121 Media's behavioural targeting service with Part 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; who made those enquiries; what information was requested; and what response the Home Office made; and

What work was undertaken by the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism between June 2007 and December 2007 on the legal position of internet advertising systems; and

Who attended the meeting between Phorm/121 Media and officials from the Home Office in August 2007; what the purpose of the meeting was; what the agenda was; and whether they will place the minutes of the meeting in the Library of the House; and

What was the message sent by Home Office officials to Phorm/121 Media's legal representative on 7 December 2007; and

What assessment they have made of the legality of BT's trials of Phorm/121 Media technology; and

What assessment they have made of the security implications of targeted online advertising and the interception of unencrypted communication for this purpose.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism)

The Government first learnt of the targeted online advertising trials in April this year. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have held discussions with BT on this matter. The ICO is monitoring the situation closely.

The first request from Phorm (or 121 Media) was received in June 2007 asking about the compatibility of targeted online advertising with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. The Home Office circulated a response dealing with the general issue of targeted online advertising and the compatibility with RIPA in February 2008.

Between June 2007 and December 2007 a number of requests for information concerning targeted online advertising were received. The issue was also discussed at an informal meeting with one targeted online advertising company. This meeting informed the response given in February 2008.

The meeting was attended by representatives of Phorm, one policy and one legal Home Office official. This was an informal meeting to improve officials’ understanding of the ways in which targeted online advertising could be undertaken. There was no agenda and no minutes were taken.

It would not be appropriate to provide details of that communication to a legal adviser in Phorm as we believe it is subject to legal privilege.

The Home Office has made no assessment of the legality of BT’s trials or any specific targeted online advertising system.

Online targeted advertising can be provided in a number of different ways, and the security implications of each would need to be considered on an individual basis. The Information Commissioner’s Office is responsible for overseeing the data privacy issues arising from the use of communications, including those raised by targeted online advertising, and for investigating the security of personal data. The ICO has stated: “On the basis of our understanding of the explanation provided to us there does not appear to be any detriment to users in the operation of the Phorm system”. But the ICO is keeping the situation under review.

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