Alistair Fairweather

Don’t sniff my packets!

2009-11-27 10:02

Hands up, who likes the idea of being secretly watched while they undress? Ok, you guys at the back, keep your shirts on. For the rest of us the idea is a bit horrifying. Your internet browsing should be as private as your dressing room – and it was until Virgin Media started monitoring its customers’ internet usage.

Virgin, who provides broadband access to millions of people in the UK, announced on the 26th of November that it would roll out “deep packet inspection technology” for 40% of its UK users.

In English that means it could figure out exactly what sites you visit, what files you download and that you Googled “naked swimwear babes” last week. But the real kicker is: it won’t inform the users that they are being monitored.

Why is it doing this? Virgin wants to combat illegal file sharing – the vast river of pirated music, movies, TV shows and software that is exchanged every day on “peer to peer” networks. These shady networks link individual users to each other, and so they have no clear centre that can be shut down.

Virgin plans to monitor its users to get an idea of how much of this illegal sharing is going on, so it can plan a response. The UK government, led by Lord Mandelson, is threatening to start penalising file sharers directly, and Virgin is trying to mitigate that risk by implementing its own gentler methods.

Now while this may be a noble cause, trampling people’s right to privacy is not the way to go. And Virgin doesn’t seem to understand the magnitude of what it’s doing.

When asked why it won’t inform users they are being monitored, a Virgin lackey said "It would be counter-productive because it doesn't affect customers directly".

Come again? I’d like to know if I’m under surveillance, thanks very much. Virgin claims that no records will be kept on individual customers and that the data will be “anonymised”. So I can trust you to invade my privacy because you promise to take care of my data once you’ve got it? Ya, right.

This debacle smacks of the windmill tilting that the global music industry has engaged in for the last decade. Instead of looking for new ways to sell their music, they ran around suing individual offenders. It took Apple, a computer company, to save their asses with iTunes.

Now new revenue opportunities - like Nokia’s “comes with music” and Spotify’s ad supported streaming – are transforming the industry. This proves that carrots (particularly cheap and easy ones) are much better than sticks when it comes to piracy.

But perhaps the most disturbing detail in the whole affair? Virgin are getting the monitoring technology from Detica, a subsidiary of BAE Systems, the UK-based defence contractor. Yep, we’re talking military intelligence. And we all know how great those guys are at caring for the little guy.

Follow Alistair on Twitter – @afairweather

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