Last week, AT&T emailed 1,800 customers of its Connect 'N Save long-distance program about new discounted rates on international calls. But instead of sending blind carbon copies of the message to each person on the list, AT&T kept the recipients in the "to" field. Each customer that received the message also received the email addresses of everyone else who received the message.
AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel blamed the snafu on "human error." He said the company was in the process of apologizing to consumers for it.
"Customer records are something we keep private," Siegel said. "That's why we regret this mistake."
Theresa Edo was among those whose email addresses were shown. Edo, who works for public relations firm LNS Communications in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said she signed up for the Connect 'N Save program about a year ago, but had not received any email from the company until last week's mass mailing.
Saying that her firm works with high-tech companies including Internet telephony company VocalTec, Edo said she understands the mistake and isn't upset by it. Still, she does have some worries.
"I can just imagine what somebody with an evil glint in their eye could do with all these email addresses," Edo said.
Siegel said AT&T will investigate the incident to ensure that it doesn't recur. But Forrester Research analyst Kate Delhagen said online users should expect incidents like Nissan's and AT&T's to happen with increasing frequency. Although Delhagen called the incidents "a gross violation of consumers' privacy," she said Net users could do little to prevent them.
"The solution is to get offline, but who wants to do that?" she said.
Online privacy activist Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, said the Nissan and AT&T incidents show that companies are still trying to figure out how to use the Internet to target customers. He said that companies are starting to consider email to be an important marketing tool, but they lack the expertise to use it properly.
Calling to mind a recent AT&T marketing campaign, Catlett cracked, "Have you ever received an email with 6,000 addresses in the header? You will."