Big phone companies have begun to sell the vast troves of data they gather about their subscribers’ locations, travels and Web-browsing habits, reports the Wall Street Journal.
Even as Americans browsing the Internet grow more accustomed to having every move tracked, combining that information with a detailed accounting of their movements in the real world has long been considered particularly sensitive.
Verizon offers Precision Market Insights to businesses like malls, stadiums and billboard owners statistics about the activities and backgrounds of cellphone users in particular locations.
Instead of merely offering customers a trusted conduit for communication, carriers are coming to see subscribers as sources of data that can be mined for profit, a practice more common among providers of free online services like Google and Facebook, reports the WSJ.
The companies say they don’t sell data about individuals but rather about groups of people. Privacy advocates say the law permits them to do so. In 2011, Verizon sent notice to customers saying they may use their data in this way.
Verizon’s data service is being used by the Phoenix Suns. The basketball team has used it to map where people attending its games live in order increase advertising in areas that haven’t met expectations, says Scott Horowitz, a team vice president.
Julia Angwin (twitter) recently led a team of reporters from The Wall Street Journal in analyzing the tracking software and discovered that nearly all of the most commonly visited websites gather information in real time about the behavior of online users. Visiting the top 50 internet websites resulted in more than 3,000 cookies embedded into a “clean” computer. Wikipedia had no cookies. Dictionary.com had the most, with over 250 attached to their computer on a single visit.
Chris Soghoian, a privacy specialist at the American Civil Liberties Union, says the ability to profit from customer data could give wireless carriers an incentive to track customers more precisely than connecting calls requires and to store even more of their Web browsing history.
That could broaden the range of data about individuals’ habits and movements that law enforcement could subpoena, Mr. Soghoian says. “It’s the collection that’s the scary part, not the business use.”
Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, one of the world’s biggest billboard companies, has agreed to conduct a trial of Verizon’s Precision service, reports the WSJ. The service could allow billboard owners to measure how likely someone driving by is to go to the store being advertised. “You’ve got an industry that was historically about eyeballs,” she says. “Now you know more about who those people are and what their behavior looks like.”
The multi-billion dollar data mining industry is taking target marketing into a New Frontier. Every time you swipe a rewards card at a store, that data goes somewhere to get analyzed. Marketplace’s Stacey Vanek-Smith takes a look and visits a data mining company.
Behavioral targeting captures data on websites, the pages they visit, the amount of time they view each page, the links they click on, the searches they make and the things that they interact with.
Carriers offer far more data mining potential.