Wi-Fi installer claims AT&T is invading your privacy

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - An AT&T service technician claims a proprietary AT&T app installed on his company-owned iPad maps the interiors of customers’ homes without their consent.

What’s the issue?

The technician said the app collects and stores data about the home’s room type, room location and couples it with their name and address. He claims more than 1,000 homes in the Houston area have already been mapped since the beginning of the year.

The installer, who asked remain anonymous, told Channel 2 Investigates: “It seems we’re invading peoples’ privacy without their knowledge.”

The installer said AT&T mandates technicians use the app in customers’ homes after internet services are installed.

What AT&T says

AT&T did not consent to an on-camera interview with KPRC 2, but firmly denied that customers’ home interiors are being mapped. Jim Greer, assistant vice president of corporate communications, sent two statements:

Statement No. 1:

"When we install internet service, our technicians, with customer permission, take signal readings around the home to make sure the service is performing in a way that meets our customer’s expectations. The information from the testing merely provides a generic room name, Wi-Fi signal strength and date of the test. This is used to help customers by providing the best location for equipment placement and identifying whether Wi-Fi extenders are needed to ensure quality service.

Some important background information that may be helpful:

  • Our employees are trained to discuss their work with our customers and to clearly communicate what they are doing while performing their work, including customer approval to proceed with in-home signal strength testing to identify coverage gaps and show the benefits of Wi-Fi extenders.
  • Room names are generic and chosen from a list of general options, i.e. living room, hallway, kitchen, etc.
  • We don’t collect individual home layout details, but simply measure Wi-Fi signal strength by assigned room name in order to provide technical support during installation and to help customers troubleshoot if signal strength issues occur.
  • We do not sell or share this data with third parties.

Statement No. 2:

  • With the customer’s permission, we survey signal strength in rooms the customer identifies as high wireless usage, assign a room name and capture the time and date of the test. The information helps our technicians provide the best possible in-home connections and customer experience by optimally locating the base Wi-Fi equipment. In some homes, we also offer extenders to help eliminate Wi-Fi dead spots.
  • Like many apps that smartphone customers use regularly, our tool captures geolocation information that we only use to confirm our technician’s location.
  • We only use the survey information to service our customer’s in-home Wi-Fi needs and do not sell or share the data with third parties.
  • Retained survey information of Wi-Fi signal strength by assigned room name, plus time and date of the baseline test, has no value beyond the customer experience. In the future, we anticipate enhancing our customer Smart Home Manager app automatically so customers have a performance baseline to help troubleshoot any future signal issues that might occur.

What’s legal?

Paul Van Slyke, an internet and technology attorney, based in Houston, reviewed AT&T’s Terms of Service for home internet service. He could not find any reference to AT&T’s “Wifi Map” App, nor could we. But Van Slyke said that the lack of inclusion does not necessarily mean AT&T is breaching their contract with customers or doing anything illegal. Inherently, there is probably nothing wrong with collecting data from customers, Van Slyke said, even if they use it to market their own products. The question is whether AT&T is providing the information to third party companies, such behavior does require customer consent, Van Slyke said.

AT&T states in their response to KPRC: “We do not sell or share this data with third parties.”

Wait, there’s more

Christopher Bronk, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of computer and information systems at the University of Houston. Bronk stated plainly to us, he didn’t think the mapping issue was big deal, said soon enough, all Internet Service Providers will need a detailed layout of the interiors of customers’ homes because of 5G technology. 5G technology, according to Bronk, is much more sensitive to impediments like walls and doors. He said 5G will require that ISP’s know how a house is laid out for optimum equipment placement.

5G by the numbers

  • Can I get 5G home internet service in Houston? Currently, only Verizon offers 5G home internet service to an unspecified number of Houston home addresses.
  • How fast is 5G? Verizon claims that their 5G internet service is 20 times faster than 4G LTE.
  • 5G’s theoretical maximum speed is 10 gigabits per second, according to the Consumer Technology Association a two-hour movie would download in 3.6 seconds vs. 6 minutes on 4G and 26 hours on 3G.

Copyright 2019 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.