Good for AT&T: the telephone and Internet Service Provider (ISP) is ready to protect your privacy. At a cost.
It’s no surprise that our privacy is being infringed upon wherever we turn online. Facebook does it. Google does it. Even your employer can track you. So yes, ISPs track you too. It might seem like a great service offered by AT&T, but should you really have to pay for your own privacy? What’s the big idea? And is it actually worth that extra cash?
What They’re Offering
AT&T’s GigaPower, delivering up to 1-gigabit-a-second fibre-optic Internet, spread across America in states including Texas, North Carolina, and Illinois.
But if you want ultra-fast Internet, there’s an additional price to pay: not money, but privacy.
Earlier this year, GigaPower was introduced to Kansas City, Missouri, the standard service costing $70. That effectively lets AT&T keep tabs on your browsing, and the information gleaned from this will be used to show more appropriate, targeted advertisements. (If you wish to opt out, for $99, you’re supposedly not tracked by AT&T.)
According to a conservative estimation from Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham, your privacy is worth just $29, although between $44 and $66 is probably a more accurate estimate.
A spokesperson argued that:
“We can offer a lower price to customers participating in AT&T Internet Preferences because advertisers will pay us for the opportunity to deliver relevant advertising and offers tailored to our customer’s interests.”
What they’re saying is, in essence, you’re paying them the money they’d get from advertisers otherwise. Put that way, it sounds pretty understandable. But is it really something more underhand and intimidating?
What Are They Doing Now?
The company’s terms set out on their website state fairly clearly how your data is utilised:
“If you search for concert tickets, you may receive offers and ads related to restaurants near the concert venue… After you browse hotels in Miami, you may be offered discounts for rental cars there… If you are exploring a new home appliance at one retailer, you may be presented with similar appliance options from other retailers.”
Sounds helpful, right? It’s certainly something we’re all used to: feeding on your cookies, ads will appear customed to your tastes.
However, AT&T uses Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to filter through all the information obtained about your viewing habits: the web pages you read, the social media you use, the online shops you frequent, the videos you watch… Fortunately, encrypted sites using a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) certificate prevents intimate details like credit card information from being shared.
And because they’re providing you with the ability to visit anything you want, they have a more complete coverage than any other service – even search engines like Google.
It doesn’t matter what device you’re using either. AT&T creates a profile about you, based on where you go online.
The company asserts that they don’t sell any information on, but they nonetheless share your details with advertisers who they profit from – therefore, they’re not technically selling your data.
Does It Really Matter?
AT&T isn’t a pantomime villain; they seem to simply view privacy as a commodity. That’s one line of thinking, and as far as we can tell, that’s exactly the company’s intentions.
But with all that information flowing through their metaphorical hands, an ISP can create a pretty accurate picture of who you are. It’s not unimaginable to consider what information in the wrong hands can mean.
And even though encryption can stop personal details from being shared, much can be gleaned from what is collected. Just look at Digital Shadow’s scouring Facebook profiles: based on a few status updates, it throws some worrying password suggestions. If you haven’t got a secure password, hackers, if capable of intercepting this information, could gain access to your emails, your PayPal, or your Internet banking.
It would also make the NSA’s vision of a “front-door” key to your data not just possible but also more encompassing.
It’ll matter depending on how private you wish to stay, sure, but it also has wider implications. This might start with AT&T, but what’s to stop it becoming the norm? If this proves successful, might all ISPs monitor you unless you pay them not to? Not only does it put a question over privacy; it’s a hit against net neutrality too – a core principle behind the Internet’s conception. We’ve already argued over ISPs’ influence over this freedom, as have geniuses on YouTube. What’s more, privacy could become a thing only the rich can obtain. At the moment, it might be affordable to the Average Joe, but what if it increases drastically?
People worry about what Facebook is doing. This would be worse.
But this isn’t the most troubling thing…
Is It Worth Paying More?
Naturally, it depends on how private a person you are. Do you mind a company knowing, for instance, your shopping habits? Your political agenda, based on which news stories you read? Even your sexual persuasion, according to any NSFW sites you visit? And how about a potential gaming addiction, depending on which apps you’ve downloaded while using their service?
But the most concerning part of AT&T’s Internet Preferences terms is:
The specifics of this are perhaps open to interpretation, but you could argue it means that your data could be collated in order to project demographical averages. Essentially, data isn’t used to create a profile of you in particular; instead, you’re a statistic, an average AT&T customer utilised to fashion appropriate en-masse advertising. Slate‘s David Auerbach makes a more chilling prediction:
“[W]ith the infrastructure to profile users, why not collect information anyway and save it for a rainy day? Storage is cheap, and you never know when a mountain of information on your customers might become useful.”
Similarly, opting out won’t stop surveillance from other agencies. Social networks will still watch you. So will search engines (apart from select ones like DuckDuckGo). And that’s without mentioning the NSA and even the UK Government if the so-called Snooper’s Charter is passed.
How Much Will You Pay for Privacy?
'If privacy is outlawed, only the outlaws have privacy.' #snooperscharter
— Duncan Stott (@DuncanStott) January 16, 2015
Obviously, this isn’t affecting everyone. It’s very select. Nonetheless, it’s something to think about.
At least an additional $29: is it a price worth paying? It’s up to you.