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Security

FTC report finds ISPs 'collect troves of personal data'

The Federal Trade Commission announced this week that a staff report found that a group of broadband service providers, including AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast and Verizon, "collect troves of personal data," and that consumers don't have much choice on how that data is used.

The report drew a sharp rebuke from the cable industry, holding that it provided a "highly distorted view" that casts them in the same arena as aggressive "Big Tech" platforms.

The FTC staff report focused on "troubling aspects of some ISP data collection practices" and stemmed from a 2019 order to review the practices of six US ISPs (AT&T Mobility, Cellco Partnership (Verizon Wireless), Charter, Comcast, T-Mobile and Google Fiber). The scope also extended to some ad-tech companies associated with a segment of that group: AT&T's AppNexus, which is now part of Xandr; and Verizon Online and Oath Americas (units later folded into Verizon Media, which was sold off earlier this year).

Among top concerns about privacy protection, the report found that, while several ISPs promised not to sell consumers' personal data, they still allowed "it to be used, transferred, and monetized by others and hide disclosures about such practices in fine print of their privacy policies." Drilled down further, the FTC report also found that ISPs also use web browsing data and group consumers using "sensitive characteristics such as race and sexual orientation."

"Many internet service providers (ISPs) collect and share far more data about their customers than many consumers may expect – including access to all of their Internet traffic and real-time location data – while failing to offer consumers meaningful choices about how this data can be used," the FTC said of the 74-page report (PDF).

Cable group pushes back

The NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, a group that represents cable operators such as Comcast and Charter, took issue with the report. It argued that the report provides a distorted view that lumps broadband providers in with "Big Tech" platforms, a group that typically includes the likes of Google and Facebook.

"The FTC's report provides a highly distorted view of ISP data collection policies and inappropriately attempts to lump broadband providers into the same category as the Big Tech platforms," the NCTA said in a statement. "Cable broadband providers take seriously their responsibility to safeguard the personal information of their customers and do not surveil their customers or sell their location data."

The FTC's presentation, the group added, "is a broad attack on online advertising generally, not specific ISP actions. And what is further missing from today’s report is the much larger story about Big Tech platforms that are premised on maximizing user attention."

The NCTA then called for a "consistent set of privacy rules across the online marketplace on a technology-neutral basis."

Comcast did not have an immediate comment on the report. But a 2019 blog post on the company's privacy policies notes that it doesn't track the web sites that broadband customers visits or the apps they access via a Comcast broadband connection. "[W]e don't use it to build a profile about you, and we have never sold that information to anyone," the site says. Among specific policies, Comcast notes it deletes DNS (Domain Name System) queries it has every 24 hours.

What will come of the FTC staff report is not entirely clear. FTC chair Lina Khan said it would be part of an "ongoing conversation" about privacy and data practices that could be "incorporated" into FTC action, according to Multichannel News.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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