How Telecoms Sell Your Private Info to the Highest Bidder

Have you ever lost your mobile phone and been able to find it through your wireless company’s GPS tracking service? Or have you signed up for a family locator program to check on where your kids are through their phones? If so, you’ve voluntarily entered the world of telco tracking. Unfortunately, these are but the most innocent tracking programs that wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon are engaged in.

Every seven seconds or so, one’s wireless company tracks your position vis-à-vis the nearest cell tower, determining not only your location but how long your call lasts. What a phone company does with this data, let alone with all the other information it gathers, remains the company’s secret.

Earlier this year, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) revealed that, in 2011, state and local law enforcement agencies had received approximately 1.3 million records from the nation’s wireless carriers. A wireless customer’s personal information provided to law enforcement entities is fairly comprehensive. It includes geo-locational or GPS data, 911 call responses, text message content, billing records, wiretaps, “ping” location and what are known as cell tower “dumps” (i.e., a carrier provides all the phones numbers of cell users that connect with a discrete tower during a discrete period of time).

Equally insidious, these same wireless providers are aggressively collecting and reselling your usage data. The most widely used method is through a special GPS geo-location program offered by Carrier IQ known as CIQ.

Are You Being Tracked?

On October 10, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) sent inquires to nine of the nation’s leading data brokers asking about their business practices. These companies aggregate and sell consumer information and include Acxiom, Datalogix, Epsilon, Experian, Rapleaf and Spokeo.

The senator should ask the same questions to the nation’s leading wireless providers.

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“Data is the new oil,” declared Bill Diggins, a Verizon Wireless exec in charge of the telco’s latest data aggregation program, Precision Marketing Insights (PMI). Verizon, along with Sprint, introduced its initial device tracking service in 2007.

But PMI goes further. According to Diggins: “We’re able to analyze what people are viewing on their handsets.” He offered the following example: “If you’re at an MLB game, we can tell if you’re viewing ESPN, we can tell if you’re viewing MLB, we can tell what social networking sites you’re activating, if you’re sending out mobile usage content that’s user-generated on video.”

Other wireless executives share Diggins’ enthusiasm for data collection. Sprint company spokesperson Stephanie Vinge Walsh champions the power of the telecos: “We think it’s a benefit to receive ads targeting your interests rather than ads which may not be relevant.”

Verizon’s PMI program allows it to collect user data from devices running on either an Android or an Apple OS (operating system). According to Verizon, the data collected includes what products and services a consumer is using (e.g., device type, calling features and usage patterns), what apps are on the device and GPS location. In addition, it collects a host of demographic and psychographic information “such as gender, age range, sports fan, frequent diner, or pet owner.”

Further, the company acknowledges that all the collected information can be combined into “aggregated and marketing reports.” In turn, these reports can be sold to third-party entities like data aggregators and direct marketing firms. However, it insists: “We may combine this information in a manner that does not personally identify you.” Some reports indicated that Verizon provides a customer’s home address to third parties.

Diggins identified the company’s long-term goal as insinuating itself into a customer’s mobile wallet. “So we’re able to identify what that customer likes not by filling out forms but by actually analyzing what they do on a day to day basis and serve them with products we know they like because we’ve seen they’ve downloaded and purchased products like that.”

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