O2 in trouble over browser privacy breach

It turns out O2 customers surfing the web on their phone leave their mobile number behind. Not good...

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 25 Jan 2012
Uh-oh: O2’s in the doghouse with its customers, after it was discovered that the network has accidentally been sending out information containing mobile phone numbers each time a smartphone user logs on to a website. So if you’ve got an O2 smartphone and you’ve been online, chances are your mobile phone number has been given to everyone from the BBC, to the bloke who runs that blog you looked at that time…

The information’s being sent out as part of the ‘header’ data, sent by browsers to websites so the website appears properly depending on the browser you’re using. Weirdly, it hasn’t happened with BlackBerrys – which just goes to show that the insistence of the phone’s manufacturer, RIM, to use its own super-secure encryption system was pretty clever thinking. Despite the fact that the devices were almost banned by the Indian government last year for being unmonitorable…

Judging by the reaction on Twitter, O2’s 22.2 million customers aren’t overjoyed at the prospect of having inadvertently left a calling card at every website they’ve ever visited. And justifiably so: it could mean that website owners can either use the numbers they collect from O2 visitors to send spam by SMS – they could even reverse charge them – or sell their lists of data to other dodgy marketeers. Either way, it’s not a particularly pleasant idea.

Despite that, though, the Information Commissioner’s Office said it’s not sure whether it’s a breach of the Data Protection Act. Ostensibly because although it’s giving away personal details, a mobile phone number doesn’t count as ‘personally identifying information’ because it doesn’t identify an individual. Try telling that to someone who’s just been billed £5 for the pleasure of being spammed by porn sites…

The mobile phone operator is, naturally, deeply embarrassed, saying it’s investigating what’s going on and why the numbers are being sent out. But that probably won’t come as much comfort to its customers…

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