Vodafone responds to mobile broadband spying allegations

Vodafone UK has been accused of “illegally” spying on its mobile broadband user’s surfing habits.

Eagle eyed customers began complaining after they noticed that their surfing was being monitored by an automated system, which would quickly load the same website address over and over again.

According to ISPReview, one reader decided to see where the website had come from. He tracked it down to a Californian company called Bluecoat, which has apparently been supplying Vodafone with services such as website filtering, anti-malware and anti-spyware since 2006.

The offending service was found to be Webpulse – a system which is designed to categorise website content and give companies – in this case Vodafone – options on what to do with collected data. In this case it was for child filtering content.

When contacted, Vodafone hadn’t a clue what TechEye was talking about. An hour later, it picked up the phone and offered an explanation. 

A spokesperson told TechEye: “The Blue Coat filter classifies every internet site into one or more of over 70 categories.  In order to apply the adult bar to protect our younger customers, Vodafone takes these 70+ categories and rates them as either Adult or Universal.  

“As the internet is growing at an ever increasing rate, so there are a percentage of sites not yet classified by Blue Coat as they are too new. To be on the safe side, when a user requests a site that is not classified, the Blue Coat system pulls up the page requested and checks to see if there is any obvious content that would make it necessary to classify it.   

“If it does appear adult, then the warning page is displayed. If not, it is served to the customer in the normal way.   In order that we preserve customer service in terms of performance, but do not compromise safety, this is all done simultaneously.”

The spokesperson added that if a customer is over 18, then they can access any internet site they wish with the exception of sites dealing with child abuse images as classified by the IWF.  If a customer is under 18, then where content is regarded as unsuitable, the company serves a warning page.

“We use the Blue Coat filter to classify internet sites so that we can apply an adult bar appropriately. This is not a question of intercepting customer communications but of ensuring the safety of our younger customers in a dynamic environment.  It is used solely for child protection and to block illegal content and not for any other purpose.  Other network operators use the same or similar systems,” she added.

“We are required to to this in order to meet our regulatory and industry obligations.”

Privacy groups don’t buy it. The problem seems to be that the service provider contracted by Vodafone operates outside of Britain’s data legislation. Big Brother Watch told TechEye: “Vodafone customers will be shocked to learn that the company routinely snoops on their mobile internet connections.  Internet users should be confident that the websites they visit are not used by their ISPs for marketing or other purposes. 

“More concerningly, it appears that Vodafone has been giving the California-based web filtering firm BlueCoat access to this information – a company operating outside the UK and outside of the confines of British data protection legislation.  Vodafone has a duty to protect the privacy of their customers, not spy on them”.

Broadband service Top10.com agrees, to a point. Jonathan Leggett argues that secrecy on monitoring is doing no favours for any involved. Speaking to TechEye, Leggett says: “Data harvesting without customers’ consent is pretty egregious, not to mention illegal. But it’s not terribly helpful to talk in emotive terms of stalking customers and we’re not sure that’s what Vodafone is guilty of here.

“The problem is that broadband providers need to be more upfront about their policy, which in this case is plausibly in place to meet other customer protection regulations. When monitoring like this appears to be shrouded in secrecy, it just feeds into users’ fears that Big Brother is watching them.”