Is AT&T the Latest to Sell All Your Secrets?

AT&T

What everyone once thought privacy was might be an outdated idea. With news swirling around the National Security Agency’s PRISM program along with the data collection that goes on at major tech and telecom companies, privacy concerns are blazing hot right now, and AT&T (NYSE:T) is set to show where it stands on privacy and what it means.

Companies selling the statistical information about their customers is not a new thing. Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), which have access to a wide variety of data on users, have been turning around with that data and selling it to companies that can use it for advertising or other such activities. Both sites have access to a wealth of data on users history and internet activity, which can be valuable in the right hands.

Phone companies have also been known to engage in this “big data” collection and sale. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) has a business called Precision Market Insights, which sells information about users’ location and usage. It makes sense that companies would do this, too, as IDC estimates that the market for “big data” could be worth $24 billion by  2016.

Naturally, many people are concerned about companies selling what should be private user data. But, what seems at question here is the definition of what’s private, personal data and what’s not. In the case of the aforementioned companies — and what will be the case for AT&T — all the data sold will be anonymous.

The companies buying up the information won’t know that John Doe watches this show and that Jane Doe viewed that website — though the NSA may get exactly that information. In addition, most cases of sales will likely be aggregate information that doesn’t give the details on any one specific person. In other words, the companies will likely just get broad information, so instead of knowing that John watches this show, they would know that the show is watched by a certain amount of people. From that, they wouldn’t be able to identify who was watching the shows.

In that regard, it may be a little less worrying to privacy advocates. If the companies selling the data make enough money from it, some of the profits could even trickle down to lower prices for customers. Unfortunately, there is a bit more to it in the case of AT&T.

AT&T — having services that include TV, Internet, and phones — has access to a deep pile of user information. Though it intends to make this information anonymous before it sells any of it, it may not be selling only aggregated information.

In the companies new privacy policy, it said, “When we provide individual anonymous information to businesses, we require that they only use it to provide aggregate reports, and for no other purposes. We also require businesses to agree they will not attempt to identify any person using this information…”

In light of this, users may become a bit more concerned about their privacy once again. Because AT&T stipulates that companies should not try to identify individuals from the data, it suggests that the potential exists for the data to be used in that way. Fortunately for those concerned, there will be some ability to opt out of the program and keep personal data private. That final tidbit may help AT&T keep from scaring away customers. It may even make customers more loyal, as they could feel they can trust the company to heed their wishes.

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