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How Much Would You Pay for Privacy?

Keep OutAT&T has started offering gigabit data in Austin to compete with Google fiber and Grande Communications. AT&T has matched Google’s price of $70 per month for a gigabit of bandwidth, but there is a second option—for $29 more per month they will guarantee not to spy on you and record your web browsing.

That claim actually came as a surprise to me, both for the price and for the claim of privacy. If I thought I could really get better privacy I might consider paying $5 more per month, or maybe $10 at the most. But $29? That’s $348 extra dollars per year for AT&T to not spy on you.

I sit and wonder how they came up with that number. That certainly can’t be a ‘make-whole’ number to compensate them for the amount they make for selling your data to others. They certainly get some value from selling advertising rights for the web sites you visit. But from what I know of the industry, it’s hard to think that they could be getting much more than maybe $1 – $2 per customer per month from that. And it’s also hard to believe that if you sign up for this that you still aren’t going to get ads that AT&T makes some money on. Perhaps the ads would be a little less targeted at you, but they are not going to send you to web pages with all blank ad slots.

Perhaps they get a little more by peddling data about you to the companies that are building profiles on everybody. But I also have a hard time seeing a whole lot of value from this for them today. So how did they come up with the $29 monthly fee? It’s almost like they are expecting nobody to buy it and perhaps it is just a marketing ploy to remind people that Google gathers a lot of data about you.

But even after getting over the shock of the price, which seems aimed at attracting nobody, I must ask how effective their claim might be about not recording what you do on the web. The problem is that they are not the only ones watching you, and they have no way to keep others from gathering data on you no matter how much they charge.

If you use the Google search engine then Google is watching you. If you use Bing for search then Microsoft is watching you. And your browsers watch you as well. If you use Chrome, for example, then Google knows every web site you visit. Same thing with Microsoft Explorer and most of the rest of the browsers. There are search engines and browsers that say that they don’t watch you, so if you are the kind of person willing to pay $29 a month to get AT&T to not record you, then you are probably going to also use the alternatives.

And there are lots of other sites that track you and build profiles of who you are. Even if AT&T doesn’t record what you do, if you use any social media sites or lot of other free software services on the web, those companies are learning as much as they can about you.

And then there are tracking cookies. I don’t know about everybody else, but because I read a lot of articles on tech and telecom each day I seem to get about 50 tracking cookies a day on my computer. AT&T’s plan is not going to help you with these, and unless you scrub your computer often you are going to be tracked to some extent.

Even if you do all of those things and pay AT&T,  use alternate search engines and browsers, don’t use social media and scrub your cookies often, you still are going to be tracked. It seems that the NSA is more or less recording everything that passes through major Internet hubs – every email, web search, browsing session.

Finally, even if you pay AT&T to not track you, if a law enforcement agency subpoenas them to track you, they will comply and track you anyway. That’s the law and they have always freely complied with that law.

So I sit here wondering: what do you really get if AT&T doesn’t record your web usage? And honestly, I think you get very little. They are certainly one of the parties on the web who can track you, and as your ISP they see everything. But so do a whole lot of other parties on the web. If you are going to use the web you are going to be tracked and profiled no matter what you do.

As I described in a blog of just a few weeks ago, it’s possible today to extract information about you from big databases using only a few data points. The example that researchers used was how easy it was to identify your credit card purchases out of huge metadata files using only a few seemingly unrelated data points for reference. The fact is, now that companies are using big data techniques to look through web transactions, it’s getting easier and easier to track you and I can see only minor benefits to cutting your ISP out of that process.

So I sit and laugh at anybody willing to shell out $29 per month to AT&T for privacy, because it’s largely a sham. One has to even wonder if they have the ability to not track you, and for that money they might instead just ignore your data when working with big data. I must say, that the AT&T offer is one of the oddest things I have ever seen in our industry. I would love it if one of my readers could show me the value in paying $29 each month to AT&T.

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