Jun 062010
 
 June 6, 2010  Non-U.S., Online

Jason Lewis reports:

Some of Britain’s biggest firms were last night accused of ‘spying’ on their customers after they admitted ‘listening in’ on disgruntled conversations on the internet.

The companies include BT, which uses specially developed software to scan for negative comments about it on websites including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Budget airline easyJet, mobile-phone retailer Carphone Warehouse and banks including Lloyds TSB are also monitoring social networking sites to see what is being said about them.

The firms claim there is nothing sinister about the practice, with BT insisting it is merely acting as ‘a fly on the wall’ to ‘listen and engage with our customers’.

[…]

Simon Davies, director of human rights group Privacy International, said: ‘People venting to their friends do not suddenly expect the object of their anger to be listening in and then to butt in on their conversations. This is nothing short of outright spying.

‘The firms liken this to listening to a conversation in the pub. But it is more like listening at someone’s door with a very large glass. It may not be illegal but it is morally wrong. And it is unlikely to stop there. If the regulators decide there is nothing wrong then political parties are sure to use it, along with lobbyists and firms trying to sell us things. ’

Dr Yaman Akdeniz, a legal expert and director of online privacy group Cyber-Rights, also warned that many of the firms could be breaking data protection laws.

‘Just because I am on Facebook or Twitter does not give BT or any other company the right to contact me unsolicited,’ he said. ‘These may be public conversations but firms should not be contacting users without their consent.

Read more in the Daily Mail.

If people post complaints publicly, then the “no reasonable expectation of privacy” argument would probably apply here in the U.S. People set up Google alerts on themselves all the time to find out if their name is coming up anywhere, so how is it any different for businesses to do it? But consider the second part of the issue in the U.K. — can the company you are publicly complaining about then contact you? Here in the U.S., I don’t think consumers would have grounds for filing any legal action, and I suspect a lot of people might be pleasantly surprised if a company that they were upset with reached out to try to resolve the complaint, but does the U.K. afford greater protection on this?

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