Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bundled Communication Services a Privacy Threat?

As communication technologies rapidly advance, some experts fear a "brave new world" of identity theft and privacy invasion. Los Angeles Times David Lazarus, a former winner of the Consumer Federation of California's "reporter of the year", delves into the privacy pitfalls of new, bundled, "all-you-can-eat packages of voice, video and Internet services offered by phone and cable companies".

Take, for example, Time Warner Cable, which has about 2 million customers in Southern California. The company offers a voice-video-Net package called "All the Best" for $89.85 for the first 12 months. But for anyone who has the wherewithal to read Time Warner's 3,000-word California privacy policy, you discover that not only does the company have the ability to know what you watch on TV and whom you call, but also that it can track your online activities, including sites you visit and stuff you buy.

Remember all the fuss when it was revealed last year that Google Inc. kept voluminous records of people's Web searches, and that federal authorities were demanding a peek under the hood? Multiply that privacy threat by three. Internet, TV, phone -- it's hard to imagine a more revealing glimpse of your private life.

"All your eggs are in one communications basket," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "If a company wants to, it can learn a great deal about you -- and it probably wants to."More often than not, it'll also want to turn a fast buck by selling at least a portion of that info to marketers.

There are red flags to be found in each telecom provider's privacy policy. A close reading of Time Warner's policy reveals:* Along with knowing juicy details of your calling and viewing habits -- those 900 numbers, say, or that subscription to the Playboy Channel -- the company keeps track of "Internet addresses you contact and the duration of your visits to such addresses."* Time Warner not only compiles "information about how often and how long" you're online, but also "purchases that you have made" via the company's Road Runner portal, which provides access to thousands of goods.*

On top of that, the company may monitor "information you publish" via the Road Runner portal, which should send a chill through anyone who accesses his or her e-mail through Time Warner's servers. That's not to say Time Warner or any other service provider is reading people's e-mail or invading users' privacy in any other way. The point is, they're explicitly saying they could.

Time Warner requires customers to opt out in writing. Its privacy policy doesn't include a mailing address. Telecom giant AT&T offers a TV service called U-Verse, which includes high-speed Internet access in conjunction with Yahoo Inc. The company's privacy policy says it tracks "pages you view, how much time you spend on each page, the links you click and other actions taken" when visiting AT&T Yahoo sites. It also says AT&T compiles info on "viewing, game, recording and other navigation choices that you and those in your household make" when using the company's TV services.

Despite the obstacles, consumers should be diligent about trying to opt out of service providers being able to share personal data. There's not much else you can do."We're a bit closer to the Orwellian '1984,' " said Givens at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "But that was a government eye, and this is a corporate eye." At least you don't have to worry about these companies knowing things about you after you take your business elsewhere, right?


If this is indeed the future, I'd highly suggest readers check out this article and keep an eye on the way in which technology and privacy continue to intersect. David Lazarus is one reporter you can be sure will do a good job covering this ever developing issue.

1 comment:

Tony Steward said...

Wow, I didn't know any of this. Something else a friend of mine is trying to help people with is getting their personal information off of the people search engines that are free to access on the internet.

His site is, it automatically takes you off of all 40 people search databases, and continues to do so for 3 years or something. It is pretty cool, like the do not call registry on steriods.

Anyways, great post and check out his site!