Vodafone: Yes, we slurp data on customers' network setups, but we do it for their own good

MyPr0nStash might not have been the wisest name for that file server after all


Seeking to improve its pisspoor customer service rating, UK telecoms giant Vodafone has clarified just how much information it slurps from customer networks. You might want to rename those servers, m'kay?

The updates are rather extensive and were noted by customers after a headsup-type email arrived from the telco.

One offending paragraph gives Vodafone an awful lot of information about what a customer might be running on their own network:

For providing end user support and optimizing your WiFi experience we are collecting information about connected devices (MAC address, Serial Number, user given host names and WiFi connection quality) as well as information about the the WiFi networks (MAC addresses and identifiers, radio statistics).

More accurately, it gives a third party that information. Airties A.S. is the company responsible for hosting information that Vodafone's support drones might use for diagnostics.

With Vodafone topping the broadband and landline complaint tables, according to the most recent Ofcom data (PDF), the company would naturally want to increase the chances of successfully resolving a customer's problem. However, there is no way to opt out.

One customer shared a transcript of a chat with a support minion who fingered industry watchdog Ofcom: "These changes have been done mandatory by the of-com itself, otherwise we would have surely not done that." [sic]

We asked "the of-com" if the slurpage was now mandatory. Ofcom took a look and directed us to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). The ICO told us it would "not require a company to do this".

The ICO also dropped some praise on Voda, telling us: "It's important that organisations are transparent with what they are doing with people's data and it would seem in this instance that Vodafone has updated its privacy information to say what they are now doing."

A Vodafone spokesperson told us: "We are investing to improve the home broadband Wi-Fi experience for our customers."

Not a bad idea, looking at those grim Ofcom statistics.

The spokesperson continued: "The speed and reliability of a Wi-Fi connection can suffer as more devices are connected in the home and from increased interference from similar devices in neighbouring houses and flats. Our service helps overcome these issues."

As well as fiddling with a customer's home router in order to "optimise" Wi-Fi performance, the service also means the company's agents have the tools to work out why things might be going awry.

Ominously, the spokesperson added: "They also have the ability to fix them remotely."

As for the change itself: "We have taken appropriate steps to ensure that only the relevant customer data required to optimise and troubleshoot Wi-Fi is shared securely with Airties."

The company also told us that its in-house teams and "an independent specialist" had tested the service to ensure that customer data isn't accidentally spaffed anywhere.

It added: "We are not providing an opt out mechanism because this is an essential service to give customers an improved home broadband experience." The company insisted it had merely "clarified" its policy, because "transparency is important to us".

By our reckoning, that "clarification" has seen the policy jump from just over 300 words last November to more than 2,000.

As for how one might avoid the slurpage, it could be tricky. In a chat transcript seen by The Register, a Vodafone support operative said there was likely no escape: "Even if you switch to other provider they will also tell you the same thing. We all providers are bound under the rules and regulations of the of-com, so even you change the provider the scenario will be the same."[sic]

For its part, Vodafone raised an eyebrow and told us "The advisor is incorrect and we will send out a reminder to them."

Ouchie.

Thanks to Reg reader Jeff Sault for the tip. ®

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