Are Cellphone Companies Profiting From Tracking You?

Wireless carriers are beginning to sell anonymous subscriber data to third parties.

Wireless carriers are beginning to sell anonymous subscriber data to third parties.

Today’s wireless carriers have access to more information about their users’ behaviors than ever before. For the longest time, they only used that data for their own marketing and systems planning. However, that is no longer the case, as service providers are looking for new sources of revenue.

An increasing amount of wireless carriers are methodically mining, organizing, and re-using customer data to put together incredible stats on how people move around throughout the day. As comprehensive as this data is, most experts think it is beneficial to help public health officials track diseases, help local governments lay out new infrastructure, and aid businesses in reaching potential customers.

The concern is that even if this data is shared carefully to protect subscribers’ anonymity, it could still present new privacy risks.

As the largest service provider in the U.S., Verizon Wireless has demonstrated how such a program could be put into place.  The company changed its privacy policy back in 2011, allowing it to anonymously share its collected subscriber data with third parties. They even created a ‘Precision Market Insights‘ department last year in October to oversee this program.

Still in its infancy, this program is very similar to what happens when you browse online, where websites track traffic, clicks, and user location.

Along those lines, Verizon is working towards selling demographic information about people who, for example, go to a concert, what route they took, and what apps they use once they get there. According to Verizon spokeswoman Debra Lewis, the company showed Baltimore fans outnumbered San Francisco fans 3-to-1 at the Super Bowl stadium. This type of information would be difficult or expensive to get through other means, like surveys, because not everyone in the stadium bought their own tickets (no credit card info), nor did they all have the Super Bowl app downloaded.

Since the data is anonymous, the concern isn’t about this data being made available to third parties, but rather the possibility that they could be cross-referenced with other data sources, and used to accidentally reveal details about specific groups or individuals.

There are currently some startup companies that are making money by pulling together this kind of data in ways beyond what individual wireless companies offer. One Atlanta-based company, AirSage, has invested a lot of time and effort in negotiating deals with two of the top three U.S. wireless carriers to install hardware inside their firewalls that will collect, encrypt, and analyze cell tower signals in real-time.

Since they’ve started this practice, AirSage can account for the movement of about 33% of the population of the United States. They do this by processing 15 billion locations per day, and in some places are accurate to within less than 100 meters, according to their marketing VP, Andrea Moe. The AirSage system works because cellphones ping cell towers in different locations, and the company’s algorithms look for patterns in the data.

These companies, and others, look to be taking many precautions to protect privacy. A more important question is how will people balance their privacy concerns with the benefits of making their location and mobile data available to companies. Research would suggest that in reality, most people don’t care as much as they might think they do about privacy.

Photo by theerin

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