Several of Britain's well known companies have been implicated in consumer disputes by potentially contravening privacy laws.
Popular brands including BT, easyJet and Carphone Warehouse stand accused of invading customers’ privacy by attempting to identify individuals who have made complaints about their products or services on the internet and offering to rectify the situation.
The companies have various methods but often rely on software to trawl the internet. Debatescape, a program favoured by one of the companies under suspicion, BT, performs searches on key words and hunts through social networking websites for phrases that might suggest negativity.
One disgruntled BT business customer vented his fury on facebook and labelled the company ‘a bunch of unaccountable, business-shafting, useless b*******'. He was telephoned by a member of their customer services team shortly after the outburst.
He said afterwards: 'I have since changed my privacy settings so only my friends can access my page. What happened was quite Big Brotherish and sinister.'
Such pervasive surveillance has been heavily criticised as the unsolicited calls and emails the firms are making could breach data protection laws.
Human rights group Privacy International’s spokesman, Simon Davies, denounced the companies’ actions. He said: 'People venting to their friends do not suddenly expect the object of their anger to be listening in and then to butt in on their conversations. This is nothing short of outright spying.’
Such activity can be considered a form of censorship and there are concerns the problem could escalate and advance into other spheres such as politics.
Dr Yaman Akdeniz, of online privacy group Cyber-Rights, said the companies could be breaking the law. 'These may be public conversations but firms should not be contacting users without their consent.'
However, all three perpetrators have moved swiftly to defend their actions and branded them merely as an exercise in good customer service.
An easyJet spokesman added: 'When they realise we are trying to help, they are quite surprised and positive.'
Carphone Warehouse said it used the software to turn negative situations into positive ones. 'People we speak to are often blown away that Carphone Warehouse is listening and are overwhelmingly positive about it.’