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Smart Spying – Do you ever feel like you’re being followed?

Recent revelations in the technology sector suggest this is exactly the feeling you should get whenever you’re surfing the net or turn on your smartphone. As technology advances, companies are finding ever-more ingenious ways to spy on us and we remain completely oblivious.

Protectors of online privacy have, for a while now, voiced their fears surrounding cookies. These are files downloaded onto our machines from websites which can track our internet surfing habits, allowing online advertisers to place in front of us an array of products seemingly matching our tastes and which we should be itching to purchase. The EU isn’t impressed with the ease with which cookies find their way on to our machines and the amended E-Privacy Directive (to be implemented into UK law by 25 May 2011) calls for end- users to provide positively their consent to any cookies downloaded onto their machines by EU-based websites. Exactly how Parliament implements the EU Directive into law remains to be seen, as one interpretation of the Directive would result in endless pop-up windows asking for our consent to cookies. However, the Government has voiced its desire for a more sensible method of implementation, based around opt-in web browser settings. Check out the blog in the near future to see how things develop.

Having a seemingly harmless natter on one’s smartphone also brings up privacy concerns. Recent research has confirmed that Apple’s iPhone and phones running on the Android operating system periodically collect data on the phone’s location. This information is saved locally on the phone and, worringly, also sent to Apple and Google either when the phone is synced to a PC or Mac (iPhone) or via periodic transmissions from the phone itself (Android). Many smartphone owners have successfully extracted this data and created maps of their movements going back as far as a year. Philanderers beware – your movements can easily be traced!

Getting from A to B while on-the-go has been made a great deal easier due to Google Maps and its ‘Street View’ function. Some of you may recall actually seeing Google’s Street View cars filming images of the streets near you, which can now be seen online by anyone. What you may not know is that, while filming those images, those Street View cars were also scooping up data from any wi-fi network in their range which was unencrypted. Data collected included complete e-mails, email-addresses, usernames and passwords. Google has suggested that this data was collected unintentionally and, in the case of data collected in England, has now been deleted. Seemingly, even when they’re not trying, these companies invade our privacy!

Clearly, it is almost impossible to use ‘smart’ technology whilst keeping personal data private. So, rather than worrying about how companies collect our data, perhaps we should be turning our attentions to the security systems they have in place to protect it once they have it. This is not just an issue for people communicating with each other, but for those using a common platform, such as the 77 million users of the Sony Playstation Network (which allows PS3 owners to play games online with one another). There is a possibility that their personal information (e.g. names, addresses, dates of birth, passwords and credit card details) could be in the hands of hackers who infiltrated the Playstation Network last month. Should Sony be deemed to have breached data protection laws, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) now has the power to fine it up to £500,000. Big deal! It is almost impossible to protect our personal data when we turn on our gadgets, therefore the ICO must dish out truly punitive sanctions to discourage the invasion of our privacy.

This alert was written by Simon Halberstam (partner) and Andy Solomon (solicitor) at SIMONS MUIRHEAD & BURTON LLP. If you need assistance, please contact Simon Halberstam on 020 3206 2781 or [email protected]