Unlikely hero emerges amid dark times for privacy, security

In a world awash with cyber crime and corporate doublespeak, recent FCC actions are a small cause to celebrate

Hackers

Wanna scare the bejesus out of folks this Halloween? Forget about the zombie and grim reaper costumes -- think "computer hacker" instead. A new survey shows Americans' biggest crime fears these days are not about being mugged or murdered, but having their credit card info stolen and computer or smartphone hacked.

And the unlikely avenger "using its powers for good" this Halloween season might be the FCC, which has been standing up for consumers' rights and safeguarding their data.

The Gallup polling agency this week released the results of its annual survey on crime worries in the United States, and for the first time hacking tops the list. Sixty nine percent of those surveyed worry "frequently" or "occasionally" about hackers stealing their credit card info from stores. Having unauthorized people access their computer or smartphone -- the second most-feared crime -- was a worry for 62 percent.

Those fears are likely warranted. While statistics show a steady decrease in violent crimes in the United States over the past 20 years, data breaches and identity theft are escalating.

Shadowy hackers and cyber gangs aren't alone in rattling the public. A Survata poll revealed this week that Internet users are more afraid of Google accessing their personal data than the NSA. Cnet asked Survata's co-founder, Chris Kelly, what he thought were the reasons behind users' distrust; he said that while "we can only conjecture based on our previous research, one guess is that respondents assume the NSA is only looking for 'guilty' persons when scouring personal data, whereas a company like Google would use personal data to serve ads or improve their own products."

If so, users' fears will be heightened by news this week that Verizon and AT&T are using cookies to track mobile users and target them with ads. According to a Forbes report, the companies are "tagging their customers with unique codes that are visible to third parties, making smartphone users far easier to track on the Web than they've ever been before."

While AT&T claims it's building in a unique code that changes every 24 hours, to protect users' privacy, the researcher who discovered the tracking called that "categorically untrue," saying he found three identifying codes sent by AT&T that were persistent. For details on how to check whether your smartphone is leaking code, go to the lessonslearned site.

AT&T finds itself in the FCC's crosshairs this week as well. The agency has sued the wireless giant for misleading millions of consumers with its promises of unlimited data, when it was in fact throttling their data speeds "to the point that many common mobile phone applications -- like Web browsing, GPS navigation, and watching streaming video -- become difficult or nearly impossible to use." The FCC found speeds were slowed in some cases by nearly 90 percent.

While most carriers throttle data at times in congested areas, AT&T was throttling subscribers regardless of network conditions. The FTC alleges that AT&T, "despite its unequivocal promises of unlimited data," was slowing speeds for customers using as little as 2GB of data in a billing period. 

AT&T, predictably, denies the allegations and says it has been "completely transparent with customers since the very beginning." But FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez maintains, "The issue here is simple: ‘unlimited' means unlimited." How refreshing to hear straight talk in the face of corporate doublespeak -- from the government, no less!

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has been pressuring carriers over throttling of unlimited data for a while now -- causing Verizon to abandon its plan to throttle certain LTE users -- but it's nice to see the agency follow through with legal action.

The FCC also acted recently to defend the privacy of consumer data, levying a $10 million fine against two telecom companies that failed to safeguard users' personal information. The FCC says YourTel America and TerraCom collected Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, names, and drivers' license numbers from applicants to the government's Lifeline telephone subsidy program, and "failed to employ reasonable data security practices to protect consumers' personal information."

Rather than store the data securely or destroy it after users were done proving their eligibility, according to the FCC the companies "stored this personal information in clear, readable text on one or more servers that were accessible via the Internet."

In a world awash with cyber crime and corporate double-dealing, these may seem small victories. But consumers will take what treats are offered. Happy Halloween! 

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