Seattle Seeks Data Privacy Protection

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Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels wants to be at the forefront of consumer privacy, so the city has initiated proceedings to boost protection for cable-modem customers.

The "temptation is great" to mine information from high-speed data users, said Seattle Office of Cable Communications director Tony Perez. And high-end set-tops can enable operators to track users as they click through interactive services, he noted.

Some of those boxes, such as Motorola Inc.'s DCT-2000, will include software from such interactive services as Wink Communications Inc.

Comcast Corp. has already been criticized by the public for watching its cable-modem customers' Internet use, noted Perez. The MSO admitted to the activity in February, but executives said they were using the data only to determine which content was most popular, so it could decide what to cache locally.

After much negative publicity, Comcast said it stopped the practice.

Comcast will become involved with Seattle's incumbent system, though, after the Philadelphia-based MSO's merger with AT&T Broadband is completed, Perez noted.

"We're trying to anticipate privacy concerns," Perez explained.

The local cable operators, AT&T Broadband and Millennium Digital Media, both operate under privacy guidelines within the federal Cable Act. That law requires that the companies to notify consumers that their information will only be used outside the company if they opt in to a marketing program.

There are exceptions for "necessary" circumstances. Operators can respond to a court order for information or monitor for hackers. Seattle wants to prevent abuse under the guise of "necessary" activities by changing that phrasing to "required or indispensable."

EXTRA STANDARDS

Seattle is one of the few municipalities looking to extend local customer-service standards to cable-modem customers.

The privacy proposal — which would be added to the current cable customer's bill of rights — would also specify how the companies communicate their privacy policies to customers and set a notice schedule should an operator decide to change any of its privacy standards.

AT&T spokesman Steve Kipp said the operator strictly adheres to the federal privacy guidelines.

"We can't and don't collect personally identifiable information from people, and our customer information explains that," he said. AT&T Broadband has not deployed such interactive services as Wink.

"We believe strongly that customers are more than adequately protected. They're more likely to lose control of their information by donating to political campaigns" than by using cable services, he said.

The privacy proposal has been referred to a City Council committee, which next meets on March 28.

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