Remember the good old days? Back when the AT&T (NYSE:T) tagline "Reach out and touch someone" referred to calling an old friend, long-distance? Ah, those were simpler times. Yesterday, the tagline took on a whole new meaning when an unknown hacker broke into the company's computer system, accessing the credit card data of roughly 19,000 customers who had previously used AT&T's online store to purchase DSL equipment.

An incident such as this one -- like the rash of information thefts from retailers such as BJ's (NYSE:BJ) and DSW (NYSE:DSW), the string of data fumbles at Citigroup (NYSE:C) and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), or the con-jobs that victimized ChoicePoint (NYSE:CPS) or Reed Elsevier -- might make many a Fool wax nostalgic for the good old days. But not this Fool.

On the contrary, I'm thrilled at how far we have come in acknowledging the seriousness of this epidemic of violation of consumer privacy. I'll explain.

This whole mess began with an announcement by ChoicePoint, back in February 2005, that a gang of Nigerian con artists had tricked it into revealing personally identifiable information on considerably more than 100,000 people. Worse, that this had been going on for more than a year before ChoicePoint wised up. And worse still, that the company waited as long as three months after discovering the problem before notifying any of the people affected.

But as public outrage grew -- and with it, rumblings of legislation in Congress -- companies that store our data (often without our consent, or even our knowledge), climbed a steep learning curve in the twin arts of public relations damage control and customer service. Just five months after ChoicePoint initiated us all into this mess, Citigroup and UPS (NYSE:UPS) had already cut the response-to-crisis time down from three months to just two weeks of thumb-twiddling. And Citigroup quickly imitated its predecessor by offering free credit monitoring to the real victims of this crime, to protect them from unauthorized use of the compromised information.

Today, barely a year and a half since this epidemic began, I'm amazed at how far we've come. Eighteen months ago, it took a year's worth of thieving to clue in ChoicePoint to the existence of the then-novel problem. Yesterday, alert to the risk, AT&T discovered its own breach within hours. Eighteen months ago, ChoicePoint waited months to inform the victims of its security breach. Yesterday, AT&T was working the phones, shooting out e-mails, and stuffing snail-mail envelopes with warnings of the danger less than 48 hours after the crime took place. Eighteen months ago, ChoicePoint set the standard for protecting the victims of identity theft when it offered all affected persons a full year's free coverage by a credit monitoring service. When AT&T announced it would do likewise yesterday, the public's response was "Well, of course."

Today's world isn't as safe as yesteryear, Fools. But at least we've learned how to deal with it.

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Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. Bank of America is an Income Investor pick, while AT&T was a former Stock Advisor pick. The Fool wastes no time sharing itsdisclosure policy.