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Verizon Wireless to expose customers' browsing to advertisers

Date

David Lazarus

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Verizon will monitor not just mobile activities but also what customers do on wired or Wi-Fi-connected computers, then share that data with marketers.

Privacy threat: Verizon will now monitor customers' web use beyond mobile devices.

Privacy threat: Verizon will now monitor customers' web use beyond mobile devices. Photo: AP

As far as corporate notices go, they don't get much creepier than this recent alert from US telco Verizon Wireless.

The company says it's "enhancing" its Relevant Mobile Advertising program, which it uses to collect data on customers' online habits so that marketers can pitch stuff at them with greater precision.

"In addition to the customer information that's currently part of the program, we will soon use an anonymous, unique identifier we create when you register on our websites," Verizon Wireless is telling customers.

"This identifier may allow an advertiser to use information they have about your visits to websites from your desktop computer to deliver marketing messages to mobile devices on our network," it says.

That means exactly what it looks like: Verizon will monitor not just your wireless activities but also what you do on your wired or Wi-Fi-connected laptop or desktop computer – even if your computer doesn't have a Verizon connection.

The company will then share that additional data with marketers.

Joanne Schwartz, 65, of Tustin, California, received the Verizon Wireless notice last week.

"Verizon makes it seem like they are doing us a great favour," she told me. But what the company is really doing, she said, is collecting data on her whole family's computer usage and sharing it with its business partners.

Schwartz's verdict: "Horrible."

Even worse, Verizon is enrolling customers in the "enhanced" program by automatically downloading software onto their computers, which customers may not even know is happening.

If Verizon Wireless customers want to keep their computers off-limits to the company's marketing affiliates, they'd have to go to the trouble of opting out.

This is one of the more outrageous examples of how businesses loudly proclaim their commitment to safeguarding consumers' privacy while quietly selling us out to the highest bidder.

"The holy grail for profiling people is to follow them from one device to another," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "We're going to see more and more of this."

I wrote last week about how Verizon and AT&T slap customers with hefty monthly fees if they want an unlisted phone number. Call it a privacy premium.

What Verizon Wireless is doing with targeted ads is basically what Google, Yahoo and most other big internet companies do – leveraging data about your cyber behaviour to boost marketing money.

But here's the thing: Google and Yahoo offer lots of cool free services, such as Gmail and Yahoo Finance. Their aggressive data collection is how they help subsidise these offerings.

In Verizon Wireless' case, customers pay them upfront for the services they receive. Thus, any additional revenue the company can pocket from data collection is above and beyond what it's already earning.

Since Verizon Wireless clearly isn't offering its service at a loss, this extra cash is nothing but gravy.

Customers may be hard-pressed to understand fully what's going on with the "enhanced" program. The Verizon Wireless notice is decidedly short on details.

Debra Lewis, a Verizon Wireless spokeswoman, explained to me that when a customer registers on the company's "My Verizon" website to see a bill or watch TV online, a cookie, or tracking software, is downloaded onto the customer's home computer.

Most cookies are benign, allowing websites to provide better service to frequent visitors.

Verizon Wireless' cookie allows a data-collection company working on Verizon's behalf – Lewis declined to name which one – to gather information on which sites you visit after you leave "My Verizon".

That information is "anonymised", Lewis said, to mask the Verizon customer's identity and is then shared with marketers, which can use the info to provide ads on the customer's Verizon Wireless device that match his or her home-computer interests.

So, by way of example, let's say you enjoy watching videos on the Victoria's Secret website on your personal computer in the privacy of your home. You shouldn't be surprised if ads for women's undergarments start appearing on your Verizon Wireless mobile device.

"I don't fully understand the technology," said Stephens at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "But it apparently works and it's extremely valuable to marketers."

Lewis, at Verizon Wireless, didn't fully understand the technology either. She acknowledged that a customer's mobile number has to be known to marketers so they can target ads to that specific user, but insisted that the information collected from home computers remains anonymous.

Lewis also acknowledged that no explicit notice is given when the cookie is installed on people's home computers from the "My Verizon" site, although there's a link in the site's "notification centre" to more information on the enhanced Relevant Mobile Advertising program.

Because no notice is given at the time the cookie is downloaded, it would obviously be up to individual Verizon Wireless customers to learn what's happening and then find the appropriate page on Verizon Wireless' website to opt out of the company's surveillance.

Rival US telcos AT&T and T-Mobile both said they don't have similar programs. An email to Sprint went unanswered.

I asked Lewis whether she thought Verizon Wireless' actions were a tad, shall we way, intrusive. She said no.

"Some people may want to see advertising that's more relevant," Lewis said. "There's potential benefit for marketers and potential benefit for consumers."

If you don't see things the same way, you may want to adjust your browser's privacy settings to restrict access to third-party cookies.

That's not a sure-fire way to thwart the efforts of too-nosy companies such as Verizon Wireless, but it's a start.

Los Angeles Times