How Telecoms Sell Your Private Info to the Highest Bidder
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Pulling the curtain further aside, Diggins reveals the underlying rationale of Verizon’s data collection effort: “We’re doing this on a one-to-one basis even though we’re marketing on an aggregate anonymous because we’re able to just view everything they [users] do.”
Not to be undone, AT&T actively collects user data. It introduced its FamilyMap program to track the location of any cell phone on AT&T's network in 2009. On its AdWorks site, AT&T promotes its capabilities to "reach customized audience segments based on anonymous and aggregate demographics."
AT&T insists it doesn’t sell personal data to third parties. Rather, it offers "[third parties] products and services, packages, discounts and promotions from the AT&T companies, such as High Speed DSL Internet access, wireless service and U-verse TV services, which may be different from the types of services you already purchase.”
AT&T provides “location information” to Sense Networks, a company analyzing mobile location data for advertising. One of its products, CitySense, highlights local nightspots to customers based on cellphone usage.
"Because cell phones have become so ubiquitous,” notes Ramón Cáceres, a researcher at AT&T's labs in Florham Park, NJ, “mining the data they generate can really revolutionize the study of human behavior."
He described how, last year, AT&T undertook a study of the travel habits of wireless subscribers in the New York and Los Angeles regions. The company sifted through millions of call detail records (CDRs) from hundreds of thousands of customers in 891 separate zip codes areas. It analyzed the origin and destination numbers, the type and duration of call and the location of the cell tower nearest to where the call was made.
A full report of AT&T’s research findings was not released. However, what was disclosed is illuminating as to how data collectors analyze customer behavior. It found that, on average, people living in Manhattan travel 2.5 miles most days, compared to five miles in Los Angeles. "But,” according to Cáceres, “we also found that when you look at the longest trips people make, people that live in New York go significantly further, 69 miles on a weekday compared to 29 in Los Angeles."
The other two leading wireless providers, Sprint and T-Mobile, are also commercializing subscriber data. A T-Mobile spokesperson said it "collects information about the Web sites that customers visit and their location" and that it "may use that information in an anonymous, aggregate form to improve our services." T-Mobile employs the Carrier IQ program for GPS tracking. It does not provide information as to the third-party customers it provides user data.
Sprint provides customer data to third parties. Going further than either AT&T or Verizon, it lets advertisers target customized messages to a subscriber's wireless phone. However, it insists that it does not provide third parties with customer's site visit information or location data; it ended its relation with Carrier IQ last year.
One of the most intriguing areas in which wireless companies are working with third parties involves auto insurance. This may explain why AT&T conducted such extensive research into subscribers' mobility habits. Sprint recently established the Integrated Insurance Solutions unit offering "usage-based insurance" data.
Sprint is working with Allstate’s unit, Esurance, on a pilot program in Arizona and Texas. It offers insurance companies a turnkey tracking solution, including the on-board car tracking device, the wireless connectivity to capture, send and record the data, and the program to evaluate the driver’s performance.
One of the major providers of such insurance is Progressive through its "Snapshot" program. Working with Sprint, it identifies the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), tracks the driver’s speed, time of day, location and braking patterns via a diagnostic device plugged into the car. Perhaps more insidious, it also records when the device is connected and disconnected from the vehicle. Snapshot does not include GPS tracking technology, nor identify the vehicle’s location, nor whether the driver broke the speed limit.