(U.K.)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’.
But privacy campaigners have accused them of ‘outright spying’ while legal experts have suggested that firms making unsolicited approaches to customers could fall foul of data protection laws.
There are also fears the technique could be used to inundate customers with sales pitches and advertising, or be used by political parties.
Research published last year found that a negative review or comment by a frustrated customer on the internet can lose companies as many as 30 other customers.
A negative comment from a celebrity can be even more damaging. Earlier this year, BT was forced to act quickly after singer Lily Allen wrote on her Twitter page:
‘Anyone know who the CEO of BT is? I’d find out myself but my internet connection is so bad I can’t even Google. Such bad service, awful.'
BT is using software called Debatescape, which trawls social networking sites for keywords to identify anyone making negative comments about the company. Angry customers are then contacted by email suggesting ways BT can help to solve the problem.
The move comes as many of BT’s customers turn to the web to air their complaints because of the difficulties in getting through to its call centres.
Ironically, many of the comments on BT’s own Twitter page are written by those complaining they are not able to reach service staff.
Managers overseeing BT’s social networking operation claim ‘most of the feedback we get is positive – customers like it when we pick up on their BT-related issues without them asking directly’.
However, one disgruntled customer said he was stunned to be approached by the firm after he posted angry comments on his personal Facebook page.
The BT business customer, who has asked not be named, wrote that he thought ‘BT are just a bunch of unaccountable, business shafting, useless b*******’.
Within hours he had been contacted by someone calling themselves ‘BT Sarah’, saying: ‘I saw your post about having problems with your BT services. Is there anything I can do to help?’
The customer, who runs an online business, said: ‘I did not expect what I was saying to my friends to be seen. I have since changed my privacy settings so only my friends can access my page. What happened was quite Big Brotherish and sinister.’
It comes just two years after BT was involved in another internet privacy storm over its installation of software called Phorm, which delivers targeted advertising to internet customers. The Information Commissioner’s Office and the European Commission both voiced legal concerns about the system.
But Warren Buckley, BT’s managing director of customer services, defended the practice, saying the system has been used to help around 30,000 people.
‘The key is we are only looking at what people are talking about in public spaces,’ he said. ‘We are not picking up anything private. These are all discussions that can be seen by anyone on the web.
Listening in: Some angry BT customers, unable to get through to its call centres, are turning to the internet to post disgruntled messages
‘I would liken it to someone having a conversation in a pub – it’s just a very big pub. We can’t stop people saying negative things about us. What we can do is identify them and offer to address those concerns.
‘Many people we contact in this way are wowed by it. And for us it is another way to listen to what our customers are saying and to reach out to them.’
A spokesman for easyJet, which uses the internet for 97 per cent of its ticket sales, said using Twitter and Facebook was a natural extension of its online presence.
‘The initial reaction of some is that it is a bit like Big Brother watching them,’ he added. ‘They can be quite upset. But when they realise we are trying to help they are quite surprised and positive.’
A spokesman for Carphone Warehouse said: ‘We can often use this to turn a negative situation into a positive one. People complaining on the internet do it in an instant.
‘They are frustrated and use it to vent that anger. When we identify them we can often offer a solution. People we speak to are often blown away that Carphone Warehouse is listening and are overwhelmingly positive about it.’
There are continuing concerns over the level of protection given to people’s information on Facebook.
The firm came under fire last year after it introduced changes to its default privacy settings which allowed people’s personal details to be viewed by anyone from internet search engines like Google.
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.
'People should refuse to speak to those companies and register a complaint with the Information Commissioner.'
Liberal Democrat MP Alan Reid called for an investigation.
‘This may well be within the law, but I don’t think I would be very pleased if a firm suddenly contacted me out of the blue after I said something on the internet,’ he added.’
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