Your Wireless Carrier Probably Is Selling Your Personal Information--But Does it Matter?

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Your Wireless Carrier Probably Is Selling Your Personal Information--But Does it Matter?
In your daily smartphone usage, you browse the Web, download some apps, watch a video, and check in on social networks using your GPS location. Predictably, wireless carriers collect this information, most commonly for billing purposes.

What you may not know is that major phone companies--AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon included--then sell your data to third-party companies for the purposes of targeted marketing and sales.

This news--recently reported by CNN Money with the panic-inducing headline "Your phone company is selling your personal data"--is not exactly new; last month, Verizon, the nation's largest carrier, updated its privacy policy to reference how it gives data collected from its products and services to third-party companies.

According to CNN, Verizon was the first phone company to publicly announce its data-shilling practices. Its competitors denied doing the same thing but have been all the same--just more quietly.

AT&T wrote plainly on its AdWorks Mobile Audience Network Web site that it collects customers' data and provides third-party companies with "the ability to reach customized audience segments based on anonymous and aggregate demographics and sophisticated psychographic criteria." A T-Mobile spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the carrier offers similar services to third-party companies.

A Sprint spokesman told CNN that Sprint tracks the mobile Web sites its customers visit as well as location data from the apps they use. Verizon, on the other hand, only claims to use customer demographics and home addresses, not smartphone usage data.

Nothing New Here?

The practice of plucking data and selling it to third-parties is far from new: Stanford researchers looked at 185 of the largest websites and found last month that 61 percent of them shared usernames or user IDs. The question now is whether the data phone companies are selling is any different than the data we're willingly handing over ourselves. Google is a perfect example.

We use Gmail, YouTube, Chrome, and a slew of other Google services, and all of our Internet data droppings are tracked by Google, resulting in the company's biggest moneymaker: Behavioral ad targeting.

Google's ads have the luxury of being easily ignorable (or removed with free ad-blocking extensions) and, even when they verge on the creepy, the benefits of using Google's expansive suite of free services for both work and play outweigh the negatives of seeing our personal interests splayed out in ad form.

So what's the difference between what we're freely giving Google and what phone companies are pinching (albeit with our consent, hidden deep in fine print)?

The scariest aspect of our wireless carriers tracking and then bidding our every move is that they have our every move: Cellphones have all but replaced landlines, and they're constantly with us, sending and receiving data on Wi-Fi and cellular networks. But again: we know that already--we're the ones who downloaded Foursquare and checked in--so where's the problem?

Take Apple, for instance. Earlier this year, Apple was mauled by privacy advocates when it was discovered that iPhones and other iOS devices were tracking an owner's location. At first, the company denied the allegations. Then Apple quickly updated iOS, removed automatic caching of cell tower data, and made the Location Services menu more conspicuous in order to turn off prying eyes.

Several months later, Apple released iCloud: A product with the sole purpose of tracking your usage and storing that information on Apple's servers. It was received with applause. Though Apple, in its iCloud privacy policy, is careful to point out what the company does and does not hold and how long it's kept, it doesn't involve third-party apps--the ones that are really tracking your data--which, of course, is backed up by iCloud as well.

Then, as icing on the cake, Apple released the Find My Friends app, which does almost exactly what got them into trouble before, but under the harmless guise of social networking.

The point is why do we care so much?

When we discover that bits of our data have leaked out of the intended receptacles, it's naturally an eye-opener, and a little worrisome. Provided that this leaked data isn't putting us in any personal or financial danger, as time passes, we're likely to discover that we were more than psyched to hand it over for nothing.

There weren't any signatures, no fine print, and most of us did it for purposes that suited us--whether it was for entertainment, social networking, daily deals, or just on the blind faith that what we transmitted over the Internet will never be used for unintended purposes.

Verizon was good to publicly display its relationship with third-parties and our data, and the other three major carriers should follow suit. But really, the problem isn't that our data is being stolen, or that some entities are hiding this fact from us. We've been offering ourselves up for sale all along; our phone carrier is just making money from doing it.

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