AT&T rewrites rules: Your data isn’t yours

Big Ma will soon officially enter into a business partnership with Big Brother. The announcement was not made overtly; rather, it came in the form of a privacy policy change that AT&T will make official on Friday.

David Lazarus of the San Francisco Chronicle has the details:

AT&T has issued an updated privacy policy that takes effect Friday. The changes are significant because they appear to give the telecom giant more latitude when it comes to sharing customers’ personal data with government officials.

The new policy says that AT&T — not customers — owns customers’ confidential info and can use it “to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process.”

The policy also indicates that AT&T will track the viewing habits of customers of its new video service — something that cable and satellite providers are prohibited from doing.

Moreover, AT&T (formerly known as SBC) is requiring customers to agree to its updated privacy policy as a condition for service — a new move that legal experts say will reduce customers’ recourse for any future data sharing with government authorities or others.

The company’s policy overhaul follows recent reports that AT&T was one of several leading telecom providers that allowed the National Security Agency warrantless access to its voice and data networks as part of the Bush administration’s war on terror.

A pretty novel approach: when privacy concerns rear their pesky head, do away with customer rights! Here’s more:

The new version, which is specifically for Internet and video customers, is much more explicit about the company’s right to cooperate with government agencies in any security-related matters — and AT&T’s belief that customers’ data belongs to the company, not customers.

“While your account information may be personal to you, these records constitute business records that are owned by AT&T,” the new policy declares. “As such, AT&T may disclose such records to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process.”

It says the company “may disclose your information in response to subpoenas, court orders, or other legal process,” omitting the earlier language about such processes being “required and/or permitted by law.”

The new policy states that AT&T “may also use your information in order to investigate, prevent or take action regarding illegal activities, suspected fraud (or) situations involving potential threats to the physical safety of any person” — conditions that would appear to embrace any terror-related circumstance.

Ray Everett-Church, a Silicon Valley privacy consultant, said it seems clear that AT&T has substantially modified its privacy policy in light of revelations about the government’s domestic spying program.

“It’s obvious that they are trying to stretch their blanket pretty tightly to cover as many exposed bits as possible,” he said.

Gail Hillebrand, a staff attorney at Consumers Union in San Francisco, said the declaration that AT&T owns customers’ data represents the most significant departure from the company’s previous policy.

“It creates the impression that they can do whatever they want,” she said. “This is the real heart of AT&T’s new policy and is a pretty fundamental difference from how most customers probably see things.”

AT&T also makes use of a legal classification that is familiar to anyone who’s followed the company’s fight to elude payment of cable franchise agreements: the company says it can turn consumer viewing and Internet records over to the goverment because it is an “information service.”

In a section on “usage information,” the privacy policy says AT&T will collect “information about viewing, game, recording and other navigation choices that you and those in your household make when using Homezone or AT&T U-verse TV Services.”

The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 stipulates that cable and satellite companies can’t collect or disclose information about customers’ viewing habits.

The law is silent on video services offered by phone companies via the Internet, basically because legislators never anticipated such technology would be available.

AT&T’s Britton said the 1984 law doesn’t apply to his company’s video service because AT&T isn’t a cable provider. “We are not building a cable TV network,” he said. “We’re building an Internet protocol television network.”

Meet the new Ma; meaner than the Ole Ma!

10 thoughts on “AT&T rewrites rules: Your data isn’t yours”

  1. Yet another exhibit on display for people to see that the motives of the Cable and Phone companies are not in line with that of customer needs and wants.

    It’s got to stop.

  2. I don’t know who to be more ticked off at, the Bells or the Bush administration. But the Bush administration’s too easy of a target, so I’ll stick to the Bells.

    AT&T and BellSouth, along with Verizon, turn over call records of millions of their customers for years, violating privacy laws all along, and then all of a sudden when they want to merge — voila! — the DoJ has no problem with it.

    Hopefully through the Tunney Act something will be done and both the Bells and the DoJ will be forced to start playing by the rules.

  3. Not to take up for anyone, but if you are mad at Bell for agreeing to turn over their customers information to the government, how do you feel about the government already having their cusomters data because they have replaced the private companies. Can you spell LUS.

    Not to worry, no one in local government would spy on us. After all we have the chief of police to make sure that doesn’t happen.

  4. Anono, It’s astonishing that you didn’t notice…some folks are so stuck in their ideology that they just quit thinking. The contrast between the way the Hundley affair was handled and the way the NSA/Bell affair is being handled a actually demonstrates very nicely why one should prefer local control over some fedral/corporate combne.

    When someone locally overstepped the bounds they were 1) engaged in investigating internal corruption, 2) the city turned the case over to the authorities (FBI), 3) investigators actually investigated, 4) law-breakers got indicted, 5) people lost their jobs

    This seems pretty much the way it is supposed to work.

    This contrasts with the federal case in which 1) they are grubbing through all our info without any reason to believe we’ve done anything, 2) after a couple of weeks the telecos decide to deny it 3) the republicans in congress kill any congressional investigation 4) the federal “investigators” in the “Justice” dept and the FBI don’t investigate but in fact 5) go to the courts to try and block regular civilians from investigating the whole thing. 6) law-breakers get off scott-free

    All the while presided over by an administration that is willing to say right out loud that the laws don’t apply to the president if he says they don’t, And then to claim that as some sort of “found” constitutional point.

    Honestly…give me LUS and honest local government any day — a local govt that punishes those that betray the public trust instead of giving them medals.

    (That local govt. should be less arrogant and more willing to punish their own friends should not surprise any real conservative. But we’ve got damned few of those–instead we get corporate ideologs passing themselves off as conservatives. What ever happened to those at least honestly principled Goldwater republicans?)

  5. All that being said, at the end of the day, the governmnet will still have the very information that you don’t want them to have. Why, because they are your provider. What law would that be breaking. Do your really think that Thibodeaux, who works for LUS will not “peak” at what web sites his neighbor Hebert is viewing. Or maybe who he is emailing or what he is watching.

    Should we be more worried about some stranger, who doesn’t even know who you are, looking at your data, or someone from Lafayette, who knows exactly who you are, and doesn’t like you.

  6. Anono,

    So it’s not all that important that local folks prove themselves trustworthy and the federal/corporate combine demonstrates not only that it isn’t trustworthy but that it doesn’t even acknowledge any bad behavior?

    Hmmnn, It does all boil down to trust. You’d prefer to trust “some stranger” to your neighbor. Because, apparently, it makes sense to you that a neighbor would have some active animus toward you. I don’t live in that world and am happy to leave that world to you.

    It just plain doesn’t make sense to me.