Consumer Watch: Are ISPs helping spies?

As a longtime DSL customer of the ISP now known as AT&T, I've been following with concern the coverage of AT&T's recently revised privacy policy. It seems to indicate that I shouldn't expect much from it in terms of safeguarding my personal information--and I'm seriously debating whether to express my displeasure by jumping ship.

AT&T's reworked privacy policy asserts that the company owns customer records--even the e-mail addresses of people with whom I correspond--and appears to allow considerable leeway in what AT&T can do with this information. Coming in the wake of allegations that the company has been handing over phone records to the National Security Agency, the privacy policy change is troubling.

Company spokesperson Walt Sharp says AT&T isn't doing anything other U.S. ISPs aren't. "Our policy is consistent with the policies of other major corporations and with others in the industry," he says.

But I found that not all ISP privacy policies are created equal. As explained below, your best chances for keeping your personal information and online activities private may be to go with a cable operator for Internet access.

AT&T's changes

AT&T's controversial privacy policy change, which took effect in late June, applies only to its broadband Internet access partnership with Yahoo and to its video services. "These kinds of services don't fall under the traditional telecom privacy law that's in place," says Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Telecom [privacy] laws cover only voice, not data." But data is protected if you use a cable Internet provider--laws restrict those companies from disclosing it.

The most startling revision to the policy is found under the "Legal Obligations/Fraud" heading: "While your Account Information may be personal to you, these records constitute business records that are owned by AT&T. As such, AT&T may disclose such records to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process."

Elsewhere in the document (read it in all its legalistic glory here), your Account Information is defined as including not just contact data (your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address--info the company needs to send you bills), but records on the services you use, your transactions (such as online purchases) and service charges, the equipment and software you're using, and even "your Social Security number and/or credit card information, passwords, and usernames." I have difficulty getting my head around the notion that my Social Security number is now an AT&T business record.

Another part of the "Legal Obligations/Fraud" section that sets off alarm bells is a sentence saying that AT&T can use "your information" to "investigate, prevent, or take action regarding illegal activities...or as otherwise required or permitted by law." If all that isn't a blank check to give out my information (especially the "permitted by" part), I don't know what is.

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Yardena Arar

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