Opinion: Sticking with AT&T? You're a fool

Opinion: AT&T's privacy policy should be a deal-breaker

AT&T's new "privacy" policy for its Internet and video services is way out of line -- an insult to genuine security efforts and a brassy attempt to make its profits your problem. The announced policy changes may just be a sign that cynically attaching the "war on terrorism" label to business initiatives has reached a new low, but anyone out there who believes that AT&T has announced this sweeping new data-collection policy to support the government's fight against terrorism is truly a fool. This new privacy policy goes way beyond even the most absurd arguments for monitoring Internet users.

[Editor's note: In a discussion on June 29, AT&T stated their view that this column misrepresents the terms of their privacy policy and invites you to take a look for yourself. Click here to see AT&T's privacy policy in their provided link. (Page will open in a new window.)]

[Ira's response, June 30: The link provided by ATT is not relevant to the article. It is the link to a high level description of privacy policy to AT&T’s retail customers and Web visitors. Two links further into the site, you get to the actual privacy policy for AT&T. That policy then states that "…certain AT&T Internet services … and AT&T U-Verse TV and Homezone services are subject to an additional privacy policy." This is the policy that this article addresses, and it is not available at the link provided by AT&T. I believe that the choice to provide such a link for this article speaks for itself.]

Recapping the basics, AT&T claims that it "reworded" the privacy policy for its Internet service to reflect what was previously "implied." What the company claims was implied is to the effect that while you consider your account information personal, AT&T owns it.

Once you've caught your breath, let's unpack what's happening here. First, ask yourself how AT&T benefits from a clearly controversial policy change such as this. Do you think that AT&T is changing this privacy policy just so it can provide data to the U.S. government for good will, or because the government told it to? No. If the government wants your data it has, as we know, various mechanisms to acquire it -- whatever AT&T's privacy policy. A legal warrant is a legal warrant, for example.

The implication is that AT&T is making a profit from selling the data to the federal government. And that profit must be substantial; after all, there are clearly many customers who are dropping AT&T services as a result of this proposed change. (Including me -- I actually stopped a switch to AT&T's Cingular cellular services when I heard of this development.) Clearly, AT&T will lose business by implementing or even announcing such a profound change in privacy policies. I can only imagine how much money AT&T is receiving from the government for all those records if they believe it's worth the hit.

Next, let's look at what this change entails. The new privacy policy basically lets AT&T do anything it wants with your information. (Remember, according to the company, it's its information.) The specific claim is that AT&T can do whatever it wants with your/its data "to protect [the company's] legitimate business interests."

But think: Making a profit is a legitimate business interest. Therefore, whatever the company wants to do with any of your information, for whatever it considers within its interests, is covered. AT&T makes no pretense about it. Not only would this explicit ownership claim help the company avoid lawsuits in the future for selling data to the National Security Agency for data-mining purposes, it basically lets AT&T do whatever it wants with any of your information. This isn't merely a knee-jerk reaction to current lawsuits, but is a profit-making venture for it forevermore.

Not disturbed yet? Ponder this: The privacy policy can be theoretically used to justify AT&T offering a service that consists of selling your corporate e-mail messages to your competitors. If AT&T offers that "service" at a profit, it's a legitimate business interest for the company. This sounds like an extreme, but the privacy policy allows for such extremes. Posing another problem, if you deal with data protected by such regulations as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, you now have a whole new set of eyes potentially on that data, with no accountability to your firm or your customers and no means by which you can keep an eye on things.

AT&T isn't protecting its ability to work with the government -- it's granting itself the right to do whatever it wants with any of your information or data passing through its service. While AT&T's spokesmen may well say, "We would never do that," you'd be a fool to believe them. The company employs any number of lawyers, and they didn't pull the "complete ownership" language out of a hat. They are stating, as they mean to state, that they are claiming complete ownership of your data. That is a huge leap from cooperation with government for perceived national security purposes.

Even if you don't use AT&T, you must potentially consider that one of your vendors, or anyone else you exchange e-mails with, might use AT&T. While you may not technically want to give up rights to your information, what happens if these other parties send your data, or data relating to you, through AT&T? The implications are really scary. Again, AT&T says that it's protecting its legitimate business interests, not yours or those of the parties that you deal with.

It gets better. AT&T has also extended its claims on your information by claiming that it can monitor your video usage. (You can see the privacy policy for AT&T Yahoo! and Video Services here.) There are laws on the book that state that cable companies can't monitor or collect data on viewing habits. AT&T claims that it isn't bound by those regulations because it's an Internet provider and not a cable operator. Unless AT&T is offering pay-per-view terrorist training videos on its network, I don't see how the company can claim that monitoring your video consumption is a matter of cooperating with law enforcement. That data contains value only for commercial interests.

AT&T's concerns are not about national security, but about profit and future profits. So far, even other Internet providers are disagreeing with AT&T's position. Unless there is a substantial backlash, though, it is likely that AT&T will extend this privacy policy to other AT&T operating units. Likewise, other Internet providers may follow suit if AT&T doesn't take a big hit. They might want to start selling your data ... I mean their data ... as well.

So there you have it: You'd be a fool to continue to use AT&T now that its data grab is on the table. For that matter, you are a fool to do business with anyone who uses AT&T themselves. This isn't about security in any way, shape or form -- the motivation is clearly profit. Since AT&T isn't cutting you in on its profit from your -- I mean its data -- don't give it to the company in the first place.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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