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AT&T Charging Customers to Not Spy on Them (gigaom.com)
229 points by jeremynixon on Mar 21, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

$30/mo for AT&T, $10/mo for Facebook, $25/mo for Verizon, $35/mo for Google, but the rest of the companies tracking you don't offer this feature, so are you even protecting yourself? Reminds me of how Germany got around the Maginot line by going through Beligum.

You can't set a precedent of paying for privacy because you can't pay everyone who can spy on you. All it takes is for one reasonably frequently used service (credit card, Amazon, AdWords) to refuse to respect privacy, and you are back to square one.

Privacy is not something a single company can successfully sell you by paying other companies not to spy. It can only be obtained by making spying expensive and difficult. (Perhaps with cryptography, perhaps with legislation, perhaps through some other means)

> It can only be obtained by making spying expensive and difficult.

Yes! The only real solutions are client-side: IP-block trackers and encrypt your connection. The "please, sir, can I have some privacy" nonsense of do-not-track headers and IAB opt-out pages needs to die.

The only real solutions are client-side: IP-block trackers and encrypt your connection.

Even those actions have limited value as long as you have any other reasonably reliable signature as you navigate the Web. Anyone with a static IPv4 address for their home computers does. Anyone with a browser that will allow queries for a bunch of collectively-almost-unique properties of the host system does. Even certain standard web protocols inherently act in this way when used for their intended purpose.

That means almost the entire web-using population is carrying around at least triple signature information, and if too many people start to block ads and trackers served via third-party systems, the major networks providing those things will just move to a model where sites hosting their ads act as proxies and serve the content from their own domain, which if anything would be slightly worse for privacy.

This risk will remain until we get fixes for each issue I mentioned above. Leaving aside TOR and the like, we could move towards dynamic and rapidly rotating IPv6 addresses as points of origin with sufficient ISP support. Browsers could then close the other loopholes, but some of them will be difficult to fully eliminate and keep eliminated without compromising the user experience, because unfortunately some features that are useful for legitimate purposes are also inherently leaky.

You can't set a precedent of paying for privacy because you can't pay everyone who can spy on you.

Making spying expensive and difficult is expensive and difficult, because most people are transparent. Think of how much work it takes for an espionage service to maintain an agent in a foreign territory. It's not good enough to have dead drops and cut-outs and safe houses; you need an entire network of them so you don't create patterns, and then you need to compartmentalize it to guard against the inevitable compromises.

The problem for privacy advocates is that encrypting everything itself sends a signal, albeit an obfuscated one. The solution ot this is 'everyone encrypt everything' but most people simply do not have the motivation to do so. Notwithstanding the 'everyone has something to hide' argument - most people don't. Either their private matters are unimportant, or they're not important enough to be leaned on for anything.

Further, from the standpoint of a bad actor (eg an overbearing state or any private extortionist), you don't need to penetrate people's privacy to compromise them, eg 'Help us out even though you are unwilling to do so, or we'll spread the word that you're a pedophile' would be enough to suborn many people's cooperation, without the accusation having any factual grounding whatsoever. In western society being labeled as a pedophile is so bad that most people turn off their brain as soon as they hear the word and are willing to impute guilt automatically. In fact, they don't even need to get the word right: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/aug/30/childprotection.so...

If you are providing a service over connections that are snooped means that you are on the far side of hostile territory from your customers.

This means you either have to eliminate the hostile party by buying or replacing them, or you go around them by providing en encrypted tunnel. And doing that reliably means doing away with MITM that browsers trust.

Yeah, but 'snooping' is too individualistic and paranoid, in the sense of being excessively individually centered. The bigger risk (IMHO) is that there are sound commercial reasons for tracking overall consumer behavior because it provides worthwhile business intelligence, so companies have a big economic incentive to do so, which can then be suborned for other purposes. It doesn't have to be malicious by default, eg in a shopping mall they use cameras partly to track shoplifters but also to for more innocent reasons like gauging the popularity of different stores and so on, in order to figure out the rental value of the retail units, how effective their signage is etc., which is a perfectly reasonable concern for a mall operator or retailer to have.

Also, you can pay AT&T not to track you, but they can buy the same information from someone else, and almost certainly for much less than $30/user/month. It's a profitable deal for them.

And is privacy only for people who can afford to spend hundreds per month on it?

I suspect that the plan of the carriers is NOT to profit on your privacy. Instead, they are taking a swing at google. Increasing the competition for monetization of web usage means that ad rates go down. Google depends on the ad rates- the carriers don't.

The carriers might get a brief sugar rush on their EIBTDA initially (from the monetized, non-private traffic), but over the long hall this is going to be a negative growth market. The consequence is it hits google at center of mass.

I was an AT&T customer for about 6 months. I really cannot overstate how terrible they are. I've never had any desire to seek power, but dealing with them made me wish I could be dictator for a day just so I could dismantle the company.

AT&T is a Frankenstein of a company that is simply chewing through customers with a horrific combination of incompetence, and actual malice.

45 days before my contract expires with AT&T, i signed up a new service with T-mobile, i also ported my number to T-mobile.

With in a week, i got 150 bill for breaking the contract. I argued that i never asked to cancel the service. I want to pay my last month bill and complete my contract.


AT&T cancelled my service because i ported my number. I ended up paying them 150$ just days before my contract expires. No prorated no discount.

Never ever going back to anything related AT&T. Never.

Did you check the contract to see if porting your number meant canceling your contract? If it didn't mention it, then you take them to small claims court, then when they don't pay after they don't show up, you go back to court and get a writ of execution to perform a till tap at an AT&T store.

Porting your number will initiate a cancellation of your contract on all major carriers.

Just switched from Sprint to Verizon, same deal.

T-Mobile will pay early termination fees: http://www.t-mobile.com/offer/switch-carriers-no-early-termi...

I would have to side with AT&T there.

Because they wrote a contract that says you can't pay them for 'service' for a ported number?

Because they wrote a contract that says you have to pay them more than the remaining months of full-price service if you leave them?

Why would you side with that?

> Why would you side with that?

Because the letter of the contract and law is more important than reasonableness or ethics.

If the law in your jurisdiction requires more than payment of actual damages in this sort of situation, then I would argue that your law is broken. Clearly those damages can not exceed the full cost of the original plan plus any actual costs of dealing with the early transfer, so a bill for 100+ bucks is just a shakedown, pure and simple.

Not quite true. If the contract asked for a pound of the customer's flesh I'm certain it'd get thrown out in court.

Porting your number triggers a contact termination in every case, with every carrier. This is expected, documented, correct behavior.

Offsetting the cost of Internet access is one thing, but I doubt that’s what AT&T is doing. They can’t be getting $29/month from your browsing habits, so it amounts to an artificial penalty reminiscent of non-prorated ETFs.

Exactly, this is a political game. "See? People arn't paying for privacy, they don't want it.

I don't pay everyone I meet a dollar not to mug me, it's nonsense their customers have to do this.

If AT&T is using this for advertising then I wonder what net effect it would have to take advantage of the no data cap on home Internet and serve them up a heaping helping of contradictory data. If you automate a process to search anything and everything (within reason) then their targeted advertising becomes...nonspecific advertising.

Amazon goes to AT&T to ask what users are searching and buy that data -> AT&T says they're searching everything -> Amazon stops writing checks to AT&T since this does them no good as far as choosing what to sell to which individuals.

A VPN solves this cheaper for me (until AT&T MITMs the root CAs, anyways), but I'll have to keep an eye out for my less tech-savvy friends and relatives.

At least until VPNs are made illegal because of the profits lost by not being able to track you, aka privacy piracy. Besides, it's used by terrorists and pedophiles as well. Think of the children.

> Besides, it's used by ... pedophiles as well. Think of the children.

Someone already is!

But seriously, I wonder how any law involving VPNs will be responded to by corporations.

What is the point of getting gigabit internet in order to slow it down with a VPN? Now the onus is on the VPN provider not to track you.

One of the companies I work with is fortunate enough to have gigabit in NE Ohio. I've found that with Gb the limiting factor is usually the other guy. I don't see why a VPN wouldn't be a viable solution as long as the VPN provider can keep up.

Yeah, the slowdown is a bummer, but it's still fast enough to torrent the Daily Show on weeknights ;-). And there are lots of VPN providers, so if one starts spying on me, it's easy to switch to another. For internet access where I live, I'm stuck with Comcast, Google at the Starbucks, or carrier pigeons.

Instead of using a VPN provider, I can recommend using a dedicated server. You can use a VM from DigitalOcean or others if you prefer those, I personally use an Atom from OVH for just 4Eur/month, which in some cases is outright cheaper than a VPN, too.

Plus of course you get the plenty of disk space and 24h computing a server gives you. Great learning tool, too.

Dedicated servers are great but having a fixed IP address is not going to help against tracking unfortunately. I can also recommend OVH/Kimsufi and Hetzner.

If these AT&T shenanigans is the way very large businesses are run in America, than there needs to be legislative reform, as those ways of running a business are parasitic. I believe that the incentives need to change for corporations. (B-corps are a good start). Businesses should exist not only to please shareholders, but to delight customers as well, and to solve a problem that customers need a solution for. Rent-seeking should not be allowed under any circumstances, and there should be tax penalties in place to discourage it.

What if AT&T offered a $29 discount instead for opting in to ads? I relize its just rephrasing the issue, but it's kind of like I can become a member of my grocery store's "club card" to save money in exchange for them spying on my purchasing habits. I of course chose not to participate, but some don't mind giving up their privacy for the right price.

No matter where you are, take the local area code and append 867-5309.

Works every time, every store I've been to in any state. ;)

FWIW, at Kroger and probably other places, just ask for a card and tell them you're in a hurry and will fill out the form at home. Of course, never do that. Been using mine for years. I see it as a win win, they could probably get interesting correlations from my buying habits, but have no idea who I am.

Of course share phone numbers work too, as another poster mentioned.

> but have no idea who I am.

If you pay with a credit or debit card in your own name when using that card, the store very much does know who you are.

Target dispenses with the entire loyalty-card-and-discount idea to just match by payment data.

True, but this is true regardless of loyalty cards. I'm not sure what info they can get from a credit card alone, but I'm hoping it doesn't include email address, phone number, or physical address.

There are probably data vendors out there that can turn basic name and location into email, physical address, etc.

it is not allowed to use the information on cerdit/debit cards for anything but payments.

Not allowed by whom? The New York Times documented, in its famous "Target knew someone was pregnant before the rest of the family did" article, that the non-numeric information is used:

"Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code--known internally as the Guest ID number--that keeps tabs on everything they buy. 'If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we've sent you or visit our Web site, we'll record it and link it to your Guest ID,' [Target Stores statistician Andrew] Pole said. 'We want to know everything we can.'"


This isn't isolated to Target. Long time data aggregators like Acxiom collect electronic payment records on everyone. Incidentally, they perform contract work for the NSA which undoubtedly has unlimited access to Acxiom's entire dataset.

Square remembers your email address by credit card number.

This was really surprising to me. I used Square once at a shop in Seattle, and had an email receipt sent to me.

Almost a year later, I used Square back home in Toronto and asked for a receipt. To my surprise I didn't have to give any information: just using the same the credit card I swiped months earlier was enough.

Is there a law you're referring to here or is this part of CC processor contracts?

I thought it was a part of the contracts but apperently it is a swedish law that disalowes gathering of personaly identifiable data without explicit consent.

There is 0 enforcement of this.

> I can become a member of my grocery store's "club card" to save money in exchange for them spying on my purchasing habits.

234-567-8901 works as a phone number for one of the major US chains. I use another fake phone number for the other. I even get a gas discount on it sometimes.

It would be like car manufacturers offering a discount to eliminate airbags and seatbelts.

I'll take the plan that is cheaper, and run a VPN to a VPS somewhere. Good luck intruding on my web browsing.

Write a program to parse a dictionary file, enter a word into google, click on the first link. Rinse wash repeat. When you reach the end of the dictionary, start over and click on the second link, etc. run this all the time in the background. Raise the noise floor so high that all data is useless.

There are extensions that do that for you. They're generally hopeless: providers could probably easily tell real traffic from false traffic; and you pollute your bubble making ads and search results weird.



That's a great way to get your IP flagged for entering CAPTCHAs every time you want to google anything :\

Apparently AT&T offers much better pricing if you bargain. [1]

[1] http://stopthecap.com/2013/12/04/how-to-score-a-better-deal-...

Well they charge you extra for food that doesn't have any poison in it, so it's only fair.

Url changed from https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2015/02/att_charging_..., which points to this. It points to a couple of articles, but this one seems to have the most information. We kept Schneier's title since it's more general.

ATT was just kicked off the Dow Jones Industrials so, as a sagging, old company, they gotta make money somehow.

At least they give the option unlike google fiber

Do you have evidence to present that Google Fiber is using the deep packet inspection referenced in the article? Because they make it clear that they don't here:


Also, you created your account two minutes before posting this claim?

That is strange.


>Other information from the use of Google Fiber Internet (such as URLs of websites visited or content of communications) will not be associated with the Google Account you use for Fiber, except with your consent or to meet any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.

So they say they collect it. Just that for now its going to be anonymized and not associated with your Google account.

You doubt this? When Google's entire business model is based on surveillance? Even if they are not logging everything now, they will be.

Google's standard tactic has been to offer some service that is enticing, that "just happens" to put them in a position to log massive amounts of data. They do it with analytics, they do it with email/IM, they do it with DNS, and every other service they offer. Each one gives them access to a new type of data they can log. Are we supposed to believe they will suddenly run ISP services differently?

> They do it with analytics, they do it with email/IM, they do it with DNS

Send a lot of cookies with your DNS queries, do you?

DNS has this page[1]. Analytics uses first-party cookies, not google ones. The best they could do there is associate it all with an IP address, which would be a bad way to associate data and still leaves the question of what they would do with it at that point. Customize the ads only for that IP address?

[1] https://developers.google.com/speed/public-dns/privacy

Sure, but as you point out, they build their business on it. That's how they make their money.

Verizon or AT&T on the other hand will happily give your raw port 80 traffic to any random 3rd party if it means they get an extra buck out of it.

Following Schneier's link to Gigaom it's pretty hard to get the choice to opt out - even if one already knows it exists.

I don't know. It seems reasonable to at least provide the options. It sort of like paying to get rid of Ads on the apps, except it's privacy, much more controversial. I bet there are people think privacy is non-negotiable, labeling it with a price somehow stains it. Unfortunately, the real world just does work like that way.

We've been down that type of road before, and it always ends with the "option" being made into a "Hobson's choice"[1] due to the inherent power imbalance. This kind of free-market solution only works when people can and do freely choose between options. With an ISP, most people will be stuck with "whatever the local ISP offers" or not having internet.

This is why there are various rights[2] that we have created laws saying you cannot negotiate them away. Without these restrictions we got things like indentured servitude. Unfortunately, the law hasn't yet kept up with the changes in technology.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobson%27s_choice

[2] and privacy absolutely IS a human right

What do you propose as a solution to Hobson's choice?

Regulation. Specifically, as I somewhat implied, business doesn't get to ask people to give up privacy, for similar reasons to why you can't ask people to sign contracts that give up various other important rights. Any alternative to this needs to bring along liability for anything that happens to someone's important privacy rights.

For ISPs, we already have a model that we should be using: common carrier. It may need adaption to the realities of ISPs, but the basic idea that you get certain immunities if you only provide transit.

Dan Geer was talking about network neutrality, but I believe his solution should apply to privacy as well when he explained[1]:

    Channeling for Doctor Seuss, if I ran the zoo I'd call up the ISPs
    and say this:

      Hello, Uncle Sam here.

      You can charge whatever you like based on the contents of what
      you are carrying, but you are responsible for that content if it
      is hurtful; inspecting brings with it a responsibility for what
      you learn.
      You can enjoy common carrier protections at all times, but you
      can neither inspect nor act on the contents of what you are
      carrying and can only charge for carriage itself.  Bits are bits.
      Choose wisely.  No refunds or exchanges at this window.

    In other words, ISPs get the one or the other; they do not get both.
[1] http://geer.tinho.net/geer.blackhat.6viii14.txt

I see your point. It would be nice to have that.

Paying to get rid of ads since you chose a free app that is supported by ads over a paid app isn't nearly the same.

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