Concern as AT&T Alters Privacy Policy

In a change sure to anger some privacy advocates, AT&T has changed its privacy policy to allow the company to claim ownership of subscriber information. The change will also permit AT&T to hand over data to others if it sees fit, analysts say.

Furthermore, the company said it will track the television viewing habits of customers who subscribe to its upcoming IPTV product. The data will be used to make recommendations on other programs that the viewer may be interested in.

In order for customers to continue service with AT&T, they must agree to the new policy. However, If they do, it would limit their ability to take legal action against the company. The new privacy policy also seems to infer that the company may have not been completely forthcoming about its relationship with the NSA.

AT&T, along with several other companies, has been accused of supplying information for the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. Although the company had denied breaking the law, it was one of the last to do so, leading many to believe AT&T was attempting to cover up its tracks. In May, Wired News published 30 pages of AT&T documents that seemed to confirm those suspicions.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has sued AT&T over its involvement in the case, and will argue against a U.S. government motion in San Francisco federal court Friday to have the suit dismissed. The government says the case involves classified material and claims national security is at risk.

Under AT&T's older privacy policy, which was released in September 2004, customers were not required to agree to the policy to continue service. Additionally, the company said it might use data "to respond to subpoenas, court orders or other legal process, to the extent required and/or permitted by law."

That has changed drastically in the new policy, including the omission of data being disclosed as "required and/or permitted by law."

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

Consumer groups have responded very negatively to the changes, saying the move by AT&T shows that the company is attempting to make personal records a business asset. Additionally, it forces customers to give up rights as a result, they complain.

AT&T for its part has denied any wrongdoing. It says the changes were planned back in December, and the policy was simply revised in preparation for planned television services. The company also wished to clarify its policies for legal purposes.

While privacy advocates may be fuming over the news, cable providers may take issue with the recording of viewing habits. The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 says cable companies cannot collect or disclose the viewing habits of their customers. AT&T claims it can skirt this law as it is not a cable provider.

Details of the changes were first reported this week by the San Francisco Chronicle.

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