Friday, June 12, 2009

It's Official: AT&T Admittedly Knows a LOT About You

Time is short today, but I felt the need to get this article up while I had a chance because its rare that companies with the size and scope of AT&T come out and admit just how much they know about you and why. Apparently, AT&T's new privacy policy, admits quite a lot in this regard. If interested, read it yourself and leave your reaction in the comments.

As you might guess, such transparency can also lead to concern, and this certainly is the case with some of what you'll read in this article. On that note, check out this piece by the New York Times Saul Hansellon the company's new privacy policy and just what it includes (and admits). If nothing else, its an interesting expose of just some of the ways data and details about each and every one of us make their way around the cyberworld...from company to company, for a myriad of different purposes, all in the name of profit:

These days AT&T knows a great deal about its customers: who they call, where they travel, what they watch on TV, what sites they visit on the Web...AT&T has decided that appearing to take the high ground on privacy will help it in Washington in its battle with Google, and perhaps will improve its image among those who are angry about its cooperation with the government’s warrantless wiretapping program.


It makes clear that AT&T knows where its cellphone customers are and uses that information to show ads for local merchants when they check yellow pages and use other services.

The policy is certainly explicit in addressing many practices that other companies gloss over. For example, it says that AT&T buys information about customers from credit bureaus and mailing list aggregators. And it explains how it tracks users of its Web sites and then can use that data to tailor ads to them on other sites.


AT&T’s privacy policy, perhaps more than for other companies, has a political component. Its previous policy, released six months after the warrantless wiretapping program was first published, says in the third paragraph:

We also have an obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare, whether it be an individual or the security interests of the entire nation.

Taken as a whole, the new document shows that AT&T has access to a vast amount of information about people, and it claims the right for all parts of AT&T to do almost anything with that data, including trying to sell customers other services, set prices and sell advertising to other companies.

AT&T set a few limits, most significantly that it won’t sell personal information about customers to third parties, except, of course, that it publishes the name, address and phone numbers of all its local telephone customers who don’t pay for unlisted numbers.

The site is up front about the fact that it will give information about you in response to government subpoenas, government orders and lawful discovery requests in civil suits. AT&T does not say it will notify you in advance that it is going to turn over information in response to a government order or lawsuit, except in the case of TV viewing information where such notice is required by law. (The company offers television programming through its U-verse Internet service.)

The policy offers only one significant choice: Customers can send an e-mail to request that AT&T not market to them by e-mail, telephone or postal mail. It also offers a procedure for customers to request the billing information AT&T keeps about them, but it doesn’t offer a window onto the Web tracking, television usage monitoring and location following that the company does.


The company says it can keep all the information it collects about customers as long as they do business with AT&T. Many privacy advocates argue that a policy to have records regularly destroyed can be an important way to prevent their misuse.

And the company gives itself wide authority to do most anything with data that it defines as anonymous or aggregate. That means it well create a service that would let advertisers put ads on the cellphones of “American Idol” fans in Pittsburgh who call florists more than once a week.

But interestingly, AT&T has created a rather broad definition of what is personal information, rather than anonymous information. This is important because a lot of data that some companies assert is not personally identifiable, like Internet Protocol addresses, sometimes can be used to track down individuals. AT&T says it will treat as personal “information that directly identifies or reasonably can be used to identify an individual Customer or User.” That definition forces the company to protect anything that can reasonably be used to track someone down.

So there you have it. No new or ground breaking rights are being offered to the consumer by the company, nor are they treating our private information with the kind of respect and care that I think any privacy advocate would desire. But, they've really come clean on a lot in regards to just how much they know about you, what they will use that information for (hint: to make more money), why it will keep the data for as long as you remain a customer, and that it can be forced to give all that information to the government without giving you the chance to object.

So with all that said, I'm not sure how to react to this...I guess its a kind of "I'm glad they came clean, its as bad as I thought, and now what?" one...

Click here for the rest of the article.

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