Marketplace Report: AT&T Revises Privacy Policy

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AT&T will explain to customers that it owns their phone records and can hand them over to law enforcement officials if necessary. The move comes as phone companies face lawsuits for allegedly giving millions of customer records to the National Security Agency (NSA). Bob Moon of Marketplace talks with Madeleine Brand about the decision.


Back now with DAY TO DAY. The country's largest phone company, AT&T, has revised its privacy policy. It's now telling customers, their phone records are owned by AT&T and the company can hand them over to the government if it wants to. The move comes as AT&T and other phone companies are facing lawsuits claiming they have given the records of millions of customers to the government without permission. MARKETPLACE's New York Bureau Chief Bob Moon joins us with more. Bob, how does this new policy differ from the old one?

BOB MOON reporting:

Well, Alex, there are a couple of areas where the new policy seems to differ from the previous version. The old policy said the company could share information to respond to subpoenas, court orders and other legal process. The new version says the records are business records that are owned by AT&T. And there's an interesting phrase in the part that says AT&T can disclose these records. It says they can do that to protect legitimate business interests, and then this phrase: to safeguard others or to respond to legal process. That to-safeguard-others phrase could be open to a rather broad interpretation, perhaps including national security reasons.

CHADWICK: So is there any indication that the revisions are a result of the outcry from the Bush administration's telephone surveillance program?

MOON: An AT&T spokesman denies, flatly, that there's any connection at all. He says the company has been working on this new policy for the last six months, in fact. And AT&T says it doesn't really change the way the company treats customer information; this was just an effort they say to remove some legalese and make the language easier for customers to understand. There's some question here, by the way, if AT&T can disclose this kind of information, not because of its own policy, but because of federal and state laws that might prohibit this kind of thing. I spoke to Bruce Efron, he's a public interest lawyer who's filed a lawsuit in New Jersey claiming privacy laws were violated by the phone companies. He contends federal law protects caller records and requires a subpoena for the phone companies to give that information to any government entity.

Mr. BRUCE EFRON (Lawyer): Since the law says it's the government that can't have the information, it's no defense for the phone company to say the government asked us for it.

MOON: Efron says that's the essence of the lawsuit, that the companies are in fact prohibited from giving up this information, especially to government agencies.

CHADWICK: So when does the new policy go into effect? Is it in effect now?

MOON: It takes effect on Friday, and by the way, this new policy also requires that customers are going to have to agree to AT&T's privacy policy before they can use its services. That's also a change in the new policy.

Today in the MARKETPLACE newsroom, we're looking at how the sponsorship and advertising this year at the World Cup, has reached unavoidable new levels.

CHADWICK: Thank you, Bob. Bob Moon of public radio's daily business show, MARKETPLACE, produced by American Public Media.

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