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.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Yardena Arar

PC World
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?