If Facebook's Privacy Practices Anger You, AT&T Shouldn't Get A Free Pass

from the ill-communication dept

Recent privacy conversations have tended to fixate almost exclusively on Facebook and its seemingly-bottomless pit of privacy scandals. But we've noted more than a few times how telecom has somehow been excluded from these conversations, despite behavior that's historically been as bad...or worse. From hoovering up and selling your location data to every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the internet, to trying to charge consumers even more money just to protect their own private data, telecom has a long, thirty-year history just packed with playing fast and loose with your private browsing, location, and other data.

And yet while the newswires are routinely now flooded with stories about how we need to break up Facebook, telecom has oddly gotten a pass. Telecom lobbyists just convinced the US government to effectively neuter FCC oversight authority over ISPs, all while these same ISPs call for heavier regulation of Silicon Valley giants they want to compete with in the online video ad space. That this might just be all one connected problem appears to be a concept that has escaped the thinking of far too many purported experts in the antitrust and tech policy worlds.

Telecom giants are particularly problematic because they not only own the conduit to the home, they increasingly own the services and content flowing over those connections, providing endless anti-competitive opportunities. As companies like AT&T and Comcast keep making very clear, they not only want to dominate wireless and fixed broadband, they want to be the next Google or Facebook. Fortune recently did a deep dive into AT&T's ambitions, highlighting how the company's data collection and tracking ambitions are every bit as problematic as Facebook:

"Say you and your neighbor are both DirecTV customers and you’re watching the same live program at the same time,” says Brian Lesser, who oversees the vast data-crunching operation that supports this kind of advertising at AT&T. “We can now dynamically change the advertising. Maybe your neighbor’s in the market for a vacation, so they get a vacation ad. You’re in the market for a car, you get a car ad. If you’re watching on your phone, and you’re not at home, we can customize that and maybe you get an ad specific to a car retailer in that location.”

Such targeting has caused privacy headaches for Yahoo, Google, and Facebook, of course. That’s why AT&T requires that customers give permission for use of their data; like those other companies, it anonymizes that data and groups it into audiences—for example, consumers likely to be shopping for a pickup truck—rather than targeting specific individuals. Regardless of how you see a directed car ad, say, AT&T can then use geolocation data from your phone to see if you went to a dealership and possibly use data from the automaker to see if you signed up for a test-drive—and then tell the automaker, “Here’s the specific ROI on that advertising,” says Lesser. AT&T claims marketers are paying four times the usual rate for that kind of advertising."

To make this work, AT&T needs to collect your TV viewing data, your daily location data, a significant database on your interests, data from third parties (car dealers), and your daily internet clickstream habits, a fusion of previously siloed datasets that even Verizon executives worried would be a bridge too far.

The problem, of course, is that AT&T has an absolutely terrible track record on privacy, and that's before you factor in that the company is effectively bone-grafted to the NSA. And yet you probably haven't seen many articles recently arguing for the breakup of AT&T. Only a few journalists seem to be even remotely keyed into the idea that myopically focusing on Facebook is a problem when AT&T's planning an even broader fusion of video, location, clickstream, and other data to track you on an unprecedented scale:

"If this was a story about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, this scheme would cause a week-long outrage cycle. It is outrageous, especially when you consider that AT&T also routinely hands over customer information to the government, is under investigation for illegally selling customer location data to shady third parties, and is generally about as protective of your data as a hotel front desk guarding a bowl of mints."

Again, telecom lobbyists and hired policy guns have convinced the government there should be no meaningful oversight of telecom despite it being rife with natural monopolies. At the same time, they're repeatedly (often somewhat covertly) driving much of the call to heavily regulate Silicon Valley. Yet somehow, folks angry with Facebook's privacy practices are often oddly oblivious to telecom's equally-problematic ambitions. Casual treatment of your private data isn't something exclusive to Facebook, and if we're going to solve modern privacy problems, a broader view that includes telecom is going to be essential.

Filed Under: privacy, surveillance, telcos, tracking
Companies: at&t


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 6:55am

    This article implies that Facebook and AT&T collect, compile, and sell a similar amount and scope of personal information on users. With the sole exception of location data (which only cell carriers can generate) every indication is that Facebook is many years ahead and orders of magnitude greater in its accumulation and exploitation of user data than any telecommunications company such as AT&T, and probably any company of any kind in the world, including those that specialize in intelligence gathering.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Gary (profile), 29 May 2019 @ 7:03am

      Re:

      I can stop using Facebook. I can't toss my phone out. Or disconnect the broadband from my house.

      And the article implies that AT&T collects much more detailed data than Facebook ever could.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 9:03am

        Re: Re:

        AT&T is indeed a major harvester of consumer data, but that's mainly due to its close integration with NSA spying operations. Although Facebook has apparently not yet "stovepiped" its vast array of compiled user information to NSA datacenters, it's probably only a matter of time.

        https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/us/politics/att-helped-nsa-spy-on-an-array-of-internet-traf fic.html

        https://theintercept.com/2018/06/25/att-internet-nsa-spy-hubs/

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 11:06am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Yeah. No. AT&T's harvesting and selling of customer data has nothing to do with the NSA wiretapping. They (AT&T) doesn't even have access to those closets with the government's wire tapping apparatus.

          AT&T's routine invasion of privacy is purely because they can as a corporation, and because they have considerable sway with Congress (both parties!) and the FCC they can get away with it with near impunity. If there's anyway AT&T can screw over a customer they will and do use it. Misleading advertising, misleading branding, hidden fees and overly complex billing policies, selling services that cost them no additional outlay of capital, outrageous over priced services, poor customer service, they're basically the Comcast of the telecommunications and cell phone space. They don't NEED the NSA to do all that, and it's not even a believable excuse. They've been doing ALL of that since the early days of telephone service.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 7:33am

      Re:

      You can avoid Facebook, but try avoiding AT&T when they provide your phone, Internet, and cable, and have greater control over the news people see than Facebook. Or maybe you are lucky, and its Comcast exercising the same data gathering over all your activities.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 8:24am

        Re: Re:

        Cable TV's dead in the long term. AT&T may publically deny it, but does anyone seriously doubt it?

        People have absolutely complained about their growing power over telephones and internet, particularly because they were already broken up in the 1980s. It's the textbook example of regulatory capture. It took 10 years of legal wrangling to bust this abusive monopoly and the regulators have just let it re-form.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 9:59am

          Re: Re: Re:

          I have news for you, the breakup replaced a national monopoly with smaller local monopolies. That is after the breakup, people still had a choice of one telephone provider.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 12:54pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            That is after the breakup, people still had a choice of one telephone provider.

            Kind of. Everybody knows Bell was broken up, but there's more to the story. It's no coincedence that competitive local exchange carriers, then called competitive access providers, appeared shortly after the breakup. Regulators were setting wholesale rates and requiring third party access for many years, and this was important in the early days of DSL.

            So you couldn't choose your wire provider, but many could choose alternate carriers for local, long-distance, and DSL service. The FCC have slowly been rolling back these rules.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 2:31pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              A big loophole in the telephone monopoly breakup and opening up of long-distance competition was the LATA, or Local Access and Transport Area, basically the "no man's land" that local telephone service did not reach, but that competing long distance carriers were also locked out of. As a result, the per-minute prices could be, and often were, exorbitant.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 4:45pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                LATAs were an odd Americanism, evidently relating to states' rights (the FCC only has authority to regulate "interstate commerce"). No other NANPA country had anything similar, even though they had LATA numbers for US interoperability.

                Don't forget about phone slamming (where a company takes over your long distance service without authorization) and cramming (sneaking unauthorized third-party charges onto a phone bill), which were big in the 90s.

                The imperfect regulation of the time was at least better than the current "let AT&T buy and do what they want". Outside the USA, regulators fixed the loopholes rather than give up on the whole concept of regulation.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 9:03am

      Re:

      How does facebook run DPI on your data stream and determine what sites you visit, or do they just purchase that info elsewhere?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 11:19am

      Re:

      This also misses out the other part: Who's been driving the conversation on data privacy?

      Hint: Facebook has been in hot water in Europe and Canada.

      AT&T doesn't exist in those places for the most part.

      So US pundits have been jumping on the momentum and data already available about Facebook internationally, and saying "hey, that's true here too!"

      Since there's nowhere doing this for AT&T, there's no bandwagon for the US pundits to jump on there, and starting that sort of movement from scratch is much more difficult; especially when you're up against a behemoth that's been using "grass roots" movements for decades to push policy in its favor.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    FlatZOut (profile), 29 May 2019 @ 7:03am

    And AT&T gets Denied

    Sorry AT&T, your VIP pass has been rejected. You can’t renew your free pass till you quit your bull-shittery.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 7:28am

    Because AT&T has more power.

    Tick off AT&T and they can cut your digital throat, including your access to not just Facebook but the rest of the internet as well. All hail the mighty AT&T.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 May 2019 @ 9:07am

    “Everyone hates the phone company!”

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Piccorolo Fragasso, 29 May 2019 @ 10:41am

    STILL TOO LIMITED. It's ALL corporations, especially GOOGLE!

    As companies like AT&T and Comcast keep making very clear, they not only want to dominate wireless and fixed broadband, they want to be the next Google or Facebook.

    So, having stated and discussed that "GOOGLE or Facebook" are at present WORSE, what's your plan for dealing with them to reduce what those two giants are ACTUALLY doing TODAY? You're just diverting from them with worry of what ATT merely wishes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 29 May 2019 @ 10:47am

    Come one...

    "it anonymizes that data and groups it into audiences—"

    Who really believes this??
    There hasnt been Enforcement in years..

    wonder the net without BASIC protections, not even an AV program, and WATCh your computer become a SLUG of trackers and Adverts inserted Everywhere on your system..
    God forbid, your Cellphone dont do an UPDATE from 20 different progs in the nite and DRAIn that cheap ass battery you bought, because the ATT/Samsung/motorolla/insert name here... ones cost 4 times as much.

    Anyone hear that Apple and Google play store, KICKEd tons of apps off about 1 year ago, for their Pracatices??

    Mother always said, Expect the worst and hope for the BEST.. Iv only seen this world get < half way to Good.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 May 2019 @ 4:44pm

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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