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What's In Those Privacy Disclosures From AT&T?

You likely don't read the privacy disclosures that periodically come in the mail from various companies, and you likely haven't read the one from AT&T.  Even though Cingular and the Yellow Pages are part of AT&T, Cingular wireless has its own policy as does the Yellow Pages, if you're a business customer.  The policies are printed in small fonts, they usually come in nondescript envelopes that you're more inclined to throw away than open, and they're boring.  In other words, full of legalese

Well, some lawyers read them.  And some aren't happy about what they say, especially the one written by AT&T.  Some have filed suit to challenge AT&T's privacy policy.  While that suit was filed in January, AT&T just revised its privacy policy and now takes the position that it owns your private information.  If you're an AT&T customer, then AT&T considers your personal information to be one of AT&T's business records.

While I haven't talked with the attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who filed the suit against AT&T, I'm guessing that they will consider the following section to be the most troublesome part of AT&T's newly revised policy:  "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."

Disclosure here:  I used to work for AT&T, specifically one of the Bell companies, the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company of Virginia, for several years just after I graduated from college and before I went to law school.  Monopoly aside, Ma Bell provided great phone service, and I've listened to many people since then complain about consequences of the breakup of (when it was called) THE phone company.  There were some benefits, too.  Even so, AT&T has slowly started to reassemble itself in the ensuing 30 years and may once again become the kind of monopoly Microsoft is now.  Whether that's good or bad, today's privacy issue is nothing like it was then.  And neither is the rest of the world.

If you don't like AT&T's new privacy policy, there's not much you can do about it vis-a-vis AT&T.  The company can determine its own privacy policy; it's only legal obligation to you is to inform you about it.  You do have options, however.  As my father used to say, you can "vote with your feet" and select a new provider.  If you want to keep your private information private, your options are limited.  Most phone services cross lines with AT&T at some point.  About the only ones that don't at this point are cable companies. 

So, investigate Comcast's privacy policy, and if you like it, then switch.  Here's an indication what color the grass is on the other side of the fence (from the company's privacy policy):  "Comcast considers the personally identifiable information contained in our business records to be confidential."   Beware, though.  Comcast will disclose your private information for a number of reasons, including legal process.

But it's a brave new world out there, and what's good for AT&T may be good for the country.  What I mean is that if AT&T changes its privacy policy, then it's likely the other telecommunications providers will follow suit.  If you don't like your options, then the only viable solution may be Congress.  But then again, maybe not.

Posted by J. Craig Williams on Friday, June 23, 2006

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