How AT&T Plans to Exploit Customers Online Privacy

Christopher Sewerd From our Perspective

Online privacy and tracking are hot topics these days, users are more concerned about their privacy and how their personal information is stored and used. Step up AT&T who are taking the privacy stakes to a whole new level by actually charging users to protect their privacy.

On the surface protecting a user’s privacy sounds like a great service to be offered especially directly by your ISP. What could be better than the source of your internet connection being the one who will keep your personal surfing habits safe? Well nothing, until you find out that AT&T are actually charging a premium to NOT track your browsing habits.

AT&T to track all your web usage

Yes you read correct. AT&T have hit an all-time low with the introduction of their new gigabit “fiber to the home” service in Kansas, US. Following in the footsteps of Google, AT&T intend rolling out superfast fiber internet across the United States in select cities. AT&T plan an equally well priced deal that matches Google.

Although the price will be the same as the Google this is where the similarities end. The $70 service will allow AT&T to track your browsing habits and not in any small inconspicuous way but on a massive and highly intrusive manner. The basic premise of the tracking will include all websites that you visit, how much time is spent on each site, any links or adverts you see and if you click on them plus all search terms you enter.

In a nutshell AT&T will track your entire web usage. This is one of the most intrusive web packages the world has ever seen. We’re all well aware that a lot of our usage is tracked and in many cases this is anonymous data. In recent years search giant Google has increased its ability to monitor your web usage and when you make use of various accounts of theirs plus use their own web browser Chrome you’re even more likely to be tracked.

However although more and more companies are tracking us at a service level this is the first instance of monitoring on a direct connection level and a rather worrying development.

Surely AT&T users can opt out!

Users can opt out of this tracking but not without some pain to the bank balance. Opting out is not free and will cost users an additional $29 a month on top of the $70 service fee. So while the original price is competitive to the Google service for the majority who don’t want to be tracked the additional 40% price increase makes it less attractive.

Although we dislike but accept that tracking occurs each time we access the internet the majority of tracking is anonymous or at least limited to the very basic details we choose to supply to service providers such as Google. What is surprising and most worrisome is that the tracking data that will be collected by AT&T could in theory be linked to your actual personal information. With ISPs requiring name, address, bank details and even credit scoring details in some cases, linking your usage and history with your personal details could be a recipe for disaster.

One concern is how this data will be stored and regardless of how secure a system may be it won’t be the first time in history that a supposed secure system is hacked and personal user details leaked. Imagine having your entire web browsing history that could include your inner most private searches with your personally identifiable data down to the very last detail falling in to the wrong hands.

Paid users online privacy is still at risk.

The increased cost to opt out of having your entire web usage monitored is bad enough but AT&T state that they may collect and use your web browsing information for other purposes even if you’re part of the opted out subscription price. AT&T claim those who don’t opt to have their traffic monitored will be routed via a different system to the one which does monitor your connection known as the Internet Preferences program. How AT&T intend to use your web browsing data if you pay the premium opt out price is anyone’s guess as they claim they wouldn’t be monitoring you.

A quirk of the monitoring program is how AT&T intend to monitor those users who make use of a VPN service such as LiquidVPN. By using LiquidVPN AT&T customers who don’t opt out will have their entire internet connection encrypted and passed through LiquidVPNs third party servers. This will ensure that AT&T can’t monitor or log any of your usage details even if you chose not to pay their premium $29 monitoring avoidance fee.

With a basic VPN package setting you back less than US$6 per month this is a great score for VPN services and a huge middle finger to the ludicrous tracking system that AT&T are using.