For providers, how far does consumers' data privacy extend?

Cisco will advocate for consistent global rules making privacy a fundamental human right (Image juststock / iStockPhoto)
While data protection and security are important, carriers and service providers sometimes differ on how consumer data is managed. (juststock / iStockPhoto)

Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecomToday marks the fifth Data Privacy Day, an international event that aims to improve knowledge and practices around protection of data, particularly online. While much online coverage is consumer-focused, protecting data, of course, applies to businesses of all sizes. But where does the wireline segment of the telecommunications vertical stand in terms of protecting its customers?

While data protection and security are important--the National Cyber Security Alliance promotes the heck out of Data Privacy Day and works year-round to educate individuals and businesses about staying safe online--carriers and service providers sometimes differ on how consumer data is managed.

In February 2012, the Obama Administration introduced the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, a "comprehensive blueprint" to protect consumer information while maintaining profitability. The NTIA is in charge of developing "enforceable codes of conduct" for businesses at all levels.

Last summer, the NTIA took aim at wireless carriers' use of customer data. Location and other data are sore points in the mobile world, particularly regarding mobile apps. Concern over collection and use of data by applications led to drafting of the Application Privacy, Protection and Security Act of 2013, which calls for transparency in terms and conditions around consumer data collection, use, storage and sharing.

The wireline segment is also working with the NTIA, as are many other stakeholders, to define business use of customer data. But will this self-regulating approach be enough? Or will the demands of an information-centric market trump the right of an individual to keep his or her information private?

For example, social media and online video, two of the most dynamic segments of the online market, have some pretty significant privacy issues to answer for. And a recent change to privacy regulations could be a harbinger of things to come for other IP-based communications.

In December, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved changes to the Video Privacy Protection Act.

"The move sated demands from Facebook and Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) to open up more information on what users were watching online but also opened up online video information that previously was somewhat protected," wrote Jim Barthold of FierceOnlineVideo.

The VPPA was written with good intentions: It was meant to block outsiders, or third parties, from tracking an individual's online video viewing habits. However, the December changes, which went straight through the House and up to the President for signing, make online video viewers' data less protected, not more.

"The changes are significant for online viewers," Barthold wrote. "Previously, the rules said individuals needed to give permission to share their video watching history each time they watched a video. More stringently, it stipulated law enforcement agencies needed a warrant, court order or grand jury subpoena to get access to that video watching history." Now, online video providers need only ask permission to share your data once every two years.

Where might the VPPA's change have an effect outside the online video arena? Let's look at Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and its Kansas City fiber project.

As far as high speed broadband goes, Google Fiber is where it's at. It promises 1 Gbps speed to residents and businesses in the Kansas City area, and the hope is that the company's buildout will galvanize competition and demand for similar speeds nationwide. But Google is also known for its impressive data collection practices, storing data on its users' search strings, online behavior and habits, purchasing history--you name it. It's not a far stretch to imagine that the company's fiber project will enhance the information it amasses.

"…Google's track record on privacy is far from spotless," wrote Christina Desmarais at PC World in July. "Some people aren't going to be comfortable with Google also having their TV and movie consumption data, on top of everything else."

With the passage of changes to the VPPA, it's much easier for Google to collect this data. And with many other wireline carriers transitioning to an IP environment, fewer regulations and the NTIA's stakeholder approach may mean that it's open season on collecting and sharing user data. It's something to watch for in the coming months.--Sam