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AT&T changes its policy on privacy, raises questions

Sanford Nowlin
Express-News Business Writer

AT&T Inc. has unveiled privacy policies that say the company — and not customers — owns confidential data about how subscribers use its AT&T Yahoo! Internet and U-Verse television services.

The San Antonio-based communications giant said the new policies are meant to clarify its existing privacy practices and don't allow the company to rifle through customers' e-mail or track their Google searches.

Some privacy advocates, on the other hand, say the revisions are vaguely written and could give the company — already facing lawsuits claiming it turned over millions of customer records to the National Security Agency — more leeway to collect customer data and share it with authorities.

The policy changes, effective for AT&T Yahoo! Internet customers last week and for U-Verse customers Friday, allow the company to track how customers use its Web portal, including how often they access features such as e-mail, news reports and weather updates, spokeswoman Tiffany Nels said.

They also let the company track how often users of its new U-Verse video service watch TV and which programs they tune in.

"We rewrote the policies in recognition that they needed to be clearer and more upfront," said Nels, who added that the revisions are consistent with AT&T's existing policy.

The company tracks the data to see what portions of its Web portal customers use so it can make improvements and tailor services to their individual needs. It also wants see how subscribers use U-Verse, the cablelike video service it's testing in San Antonio and plans to roll out in other markets by year-end.

However, privacy advocates say they worry the new rules allow AT&T more wiggle room in what it does once it collects the information. The company would be able to use the data to "protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process," the new policy states.

"The policy is so broadly written that it could be stretched to cover just about anything," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. "I have a difficult time seeing this as just a clarification of their old policy."

Dixon said she also is disturbed AT&T is asking subscribers to agree to the policies before using its services.

Nels said U-Verse customers must sign off on the policy when technicians install it in their houses.

Internet customers don't need to sign anything, she adds, saying the policy is an "implicit" term of their Internet use.

Numerous companies, from Amazon.com to TiVo, use digital technology to track customer behavior. And many, including most Internet service providers, have written privacy policies saying how they can and can't use customer data.

AT&T's new privacy policies, however, are drawing unusual scrutiny because of recent lawsuits and news reports that allege the company turned over millions of customers' data to the NSA without warrants. Authorities sought the records as part of the Bush administration's post-9-11 domestic spying efforts, the suits claim.

Missouri state regulators and New Jersey's attorney general also have demanded that the company turn over records that show whether it broke privacy laws in cooperating with the government.

AT&T officials have declined to comment directly on the allegations, saying the company doesn't discuss matters of national security. However, they also have said the company would only share data with authorities if it's requested through "proper channels."

Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said the company's policy revisions come at a curious time.

"It appears to be carefully crafted to get the company off the hook for any number of ways that it shares customer data," she said. "It wouldn't surprise me if this was done in response to the scrutiny they've received over the NSA's wiretapping program."

But AT&T's Nels said the changes aren't related to reports that the company handed over data to federal authorities. The company late last year began efforts to clarify its privacy policies, she said, adding that it has no interest in snooping into its customers' Internet uses.

"This is about us gathering this information and analyzing it so we can improve our overall service," she said.

Analysts said the majority of AT&T's customers are likely to continue doing business with the company regardless of its recent policy change. But the revised rules could raise concerns among consumers with special privacy concerns.

"After all that's happened lately, I think some people may ask, 'Does this mean they'll be reading my e-mail?' Or 'Does this mean the government will know what I'm watching on TV?'" said Ben Silverman, telecom analyst for FindProfit.com.

Even so, "I'm not sure many people really read the fine print and worry about these things," he said.

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