Privacy SOS

The final frontier: AT&T comes knocking for in-home surveillance

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AT&T is now selling a product that gives the powerful telecom unprecedented access to our most sacred spaces: our homes.

“Digital Life” is marketed as a ‘home security and automation’ system. Among the many options paying customers can have installed in their homes are a variety of sensors; mechanisms to control heat, electricity, water, and locks; and video cameras. The feeds from the video cameras are viewable from accounts users can access from their computers, phones and tablets, from anywhere across the world. And it's not just monitoring from afar: users can press a button on their phone or computer to shut off the water, lock and unlock the doors, and control the electricity.

The company’s advertising makes it seem like the system will do just about everything for you except brush your teeth.

Check in on your pets while you're away. See what they're up to, adjust the lights or temperature, and let your pet sitter in – all from your smartphone, tablet or PC.

Stay connected to home from virtually anywhere. Control the lights and thermostat, unlock the door for a friend or neighbor, and set alerts so you're notified if something happens at home.

Set up your home to run on your schedule. Make rules based on daily routines – turn the porch light on at dusk, or lock the doors at bedtime.

Get the most out of home automation by making your devices work together. Like getting a message sent to your phone when the door is opened.

Easily check to see what's happening inside or outside your home, what your pets are up to, or see a package being delivered.

Here's a television commercial for the product:

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It looks pretty sweet in commercial form. But it only takes a few seconds of thinking about the implications of this kind of technology to start worrying. Do you really want all of that data accessible and those vital home functions changeable via an internet connection? Imagine the field day that hackers — including the geniuses at the NSA — could have with a system like this, and it isn't hard to reconsider.

It’s not hard to imagine, either, groups of people for whom this kind of invasive self-surveillance will not bode well, among them survivors or ongoing victims of domestic violence. What if your abuser vindictively locked you out of your own house in the cold, or turned the heat and electricity off while they were away on vacation — just to punish you? An abusive parent or spouse could also use the cameras to monitor people’s private spaces, like their bathrooms or bedrooms. You said you were just going to your sister’s house for a few minutes, but while he was at work, your abuser watched you packing up most of your clothes and turning out of your driveway headed in the other direction. Isn’t this kind of self-inflicted surveillance a little much? Don't we worry about how self-monitoring of our most private space will change us or hurt us?

And it's not just any company that's promoting this set of tools. Do you trust AT&T, of all corporations, to control and monitor the inside of your home?

After all, this is the company that allegedly colluded with the NSA to hand over our private information without warrants — illegally. An AT&T employer-turned-whistleblower informed us that the company let NSA operatives install equipment at a domestic switching station, granting the secretive spy agency access to “everything that went across the Internet” — that is, all the data that was flowing through the AT&T facility. When Mark Klein discovered this in 2003, he was shocked and appalled. Two years later Americans learned about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program. Three years after that, in 2008, congress passed the FISA Amendments Act, giving warrantless spying the air of legality and — tragically — providing immunity for telecoms like AT&T that had deviously colluded with the NSA.

In November 2013 we learned that the company reportedly sells our phone records to the CIA for more than $10 million a year. We also learned in 2013 that AT&T provides the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) with access to its entire database of call records, which goes back 26 years. This information is secretly fed to state and local police, who cover up the evidence trail so that targets of prosecution cannot challenge the constitutionality of the surveillance.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations, internet companies like Google and Microsoft have pushed back against the growing surveillance state — to greater and lesser degrees — while telecoms that got immunity under the bad FAA law of 2008 haven’t said a word.

In short, AT&T is hardly a privacy stalwart.

Your Digital Life, your responsibility, with no rights

The fine print on the home monitoring scheme elaborates on the theme. In its user agreement for AT&T Digital Life, the telecom giant tells potential customers that 

You agree that You will keep Your Equipment in unobstructed visible locations and will not use the Equipment to record or view images in locations where there might otherwise be an expectation of privacy. You will not view, capture, store, or provide access to an image of a private area of an individual. You are responsible for pictures and videos transmitted by You to third parties from the Equipment provided with Your video solution.

Isn’t there an expectation of privacy in the entire home? AT&T’s marketing tells us that we can watch our pets from work, so clearly it means the cameras can be inside our homes. Perhaps by including the line about not using cameras in areas where "there might otherwise be an expectation of privacy," the company is trying to wiggle out of future lawsuits over recordings in the bedroom and bathroom. Confusing but not entirely objectionable. Then there’s this:

You expressly agree that You are subject to and will comply with all applicable laws and regulations related to your use of the Services and the Equipment, including, without limitation, wiretapping, eavesdropping, privacy, voyeurism, child pornography or similar laws, and that Your use of the Services and Equipment is at Your own risk. You are solely responsible, and we shall have no liability whatsoever, for any and all pictures, audio, video or other data that You upload, download, monitor, record, store, post, email, transmit, disclose or otherwise make available using the Equipment or the Services.

Again, sounds reasonable. You take responsibility for the impact of your use of powerful surveillance technologies. You, the user, are “solely responsible” for the content of the images produced using the surveillance equipment. 

But then AT&T hits you with this kicker:

You agree that, if you select settings as part of the Services that involve monitoring, recording, storing, or disclosing oral communications made by you and third parties on the Premises, you consent to such monitoring, recording, storage and disclosure, on behalf of yourself and any minor children for whom you are the parent or legal guardian. You further agree that you have informed the other adults who live on the Premises of such monitoring, recording, storage and disclosure.


You acknowledge that AT&T may be required by applicable law to disclose communications and records stored by AT&T, including communications related to your use of the Services and the Equipment, to government agencies and law enforcement. You consent to such disclosure.

To recap: AT&T says you are “solely responsible” for the content of the images produced inside your home, or wherever you put its surveillance devices. You are “solely responsible” to ensure that your use of AT&T’s home surveillance system doesn’t violate any privacy statutes or wiretap laws. (In some states, like Massachusetts, this might mean that you have to put up signs all over your house warning that “Live audio recording is in effect.”) But it turns out that by signing up for Digital Life, you gain all sorts of responsibilities, without any attending rights. The company makes clear that when it comes to handing over your private information to the government, “You consent” to such disclosures simply by virtue of using the product.

If you thought AT&T knew a lot about you before, just wait. Soon the company may know — and be able to share with the FBI, CIA, NSA, and your local police department — when you’re home, when you wake up in the morning, when you go to sleep, what you eat, what you watch, what kind of expressions you make while you’re on the phone with your in-laws, and much, much more.

Our home is our castle, and the place most protected by the Fourth Amendment. If I were a conniving Dr. Evil surveillance state mastermind, and I really wanted to get inside your home without your knowledge or perhaps even a court’s approval, I would start evangelizing for Digital Life. 


But since I’m not, I’ll keep turning the lights on with my hand, locking my doors with physical keys, and relying on my housemates and neighbors to tell me if someone creepy came around looking in my windows while I wasn’t home. That’s all the surveillance I need. Sorry, AT&T.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.