Blog Post

Your Mobile Carrier Will Sell You for Pennies

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Five major UK carriers are banding together to pool customer data so that it can be put into a giant database and then be used to sell advertising, The Register reports today. How long do you think it will take before this “database” idea lands on American shores? First they charge you hundreds of dollars for calls, then they sell you for pennies.

This is no different than, say, Phorm, NebuAd or any of the other tricks being cooked up by service providers in a desperate attempt to recreate Google’s (s goog) business model. In the process, they are playing loose and fast with people’s privacy. Jeez, no wonder people hate their phone companies. :-)

When placed up against a larger canvas, it seems clear that Internet companies — be they providers of web, broadband or wireless services — have little to no regard for consumer privacy or consumer rights. Giving such efforts fancy names like “behavioral targeting” or “contextual advertising” is merely an attempt to make them more palatable to users.

Remember the Beacon advertising system by Facebook? It looked innocent enough, until one dug underneath the surface, that is. Speaking of Facebook, have you read about some of the changes to its terms of service? The move may not mean anything to its 175 million-odd customers, but it’s a great example of the prevailing attitude towards privacy (or rather, the lack thereof) on the Internet.

Getting back to the wireless data consortium — they talk about using that data anonymously. Which is utter poppycock. There is no such thing as anonymous data on the web. Look at how A-Rod got nailed. The New York Times writes:

We are typically told that personal information is anonymously tracked for one reason — usually something abstract like making search results more accurate, recommending book titles or speeding traffic through the toll booths on the thruways. But it is then quickly converted into something traceable to an individual, and potentially life-changing.

The article quotes Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who calls it “the surveillance business model.”

We took whatever was done offline and put it on steroids…It requires compliance with the kind of promises that comes with this kind of data collection.

EFF says that online services should voluntarily destroy all the data they collect or else they risk finding themselves in the same situation as the baseball player’s union. They didn’t destroy the samples and well, now we have the A-Fraud debacle.

17 Responses to “Your Mobile Carrier Will Sell You for Pennies”

  1. It’s called make a “Good Law” then contrive to ignore it & say it doesn’t matter the data has been anonymized (too trite!)

    Interception and disclosure of messages
    A person commits an offence if, otherwise than under the authority of a designated person—
    he uses wireless telegraphy apparatus with intent to obtain information as to the contents, sender or addressee of a message (whether sent by means of wireless telegraphy or not) of which neither he nor a person on whose behalf he is acting is an intended recipient, or
    he discloses information as to the contents, sender or addressee of such a message.
    A person commits an offence under this section consisting in the disclosure of information only if the information disclosed by him is information that would not have come to his knowledge but for the use of wireless telegraphy apparatus by him or by another person.

  2. @KW

    Being Doubly anonymized begs the REAL question!

    At some point Personal Data was “illegally intercepted & examined” (ACCESSED); the anonymizing done afterwards in order to hide this is “irrelevant!

  3. Phelix_da_Kat at al, you may ‘reckon’, but you need to know the FACTS. As mentioned, I’ve talked to the people involved, and the legal hurdles imposed by the GSMA to ensure no personal identities are used in the process were severe. The measurement/analysis companies imvolved are under no illusion that ‘selling the data’ is not going to happen. What their businesses do is sell the resulting reports, all based on, and I repeat, anonymised and summarised data.

  4. Phelix_da_Kat

    I reckon what happens is…

    1. a company or X companies do something (possibely illegal) contentious..
    2. there’s a big fuss about it (well, only if someone spots it)
    3. they withdraw it – but only after the damage is done..

    Do you see a trend?
    Its always “shoot first ask questions later”, because legally they could argue it and string it along until what needs to be done is completed.

    Do you even hear about the project being rolled back.. not just stopped, but any traces removed?
    They get a slap on the wrist but thats it.

  5. Have talked to the guys involved at MWC (incl. GSMA), and it’s clear that the data supplied by the networks is doubly anonymised and summarised before it leaves the network, there is no trace of any individual identity in there so impossible to use for direct marketing or behavioural targeting of a single person – privacy is fully respected. There is no question of any original data being ‘out on the net’.

  6. Is the intent similar to what does? I doubt carriers are capable of executing on user data even if they have been sitting on it forever – Telco history is witness to that.

  7. I didn’t see any mention in the GSMA announcement of data being sold, pooled or otherwise made available –
    It looks like they are simply trying to provide statistics similar to what is provided by ComScore and Quantcast, but organized around mobile access rather than direct access.

    What did you find that showed the availability of data more detailed than “[…] popular sites, ranked by number of visitors, page impressions, time and duration of visits.”?

  8. Opt-in is a “Red Herring” when it comes to this type of Web traffic or Mobile Phone Network “Interception”!

    The Web User or the Mobile Client “cannot legally” Opt-in either the Website (which often contains Copyright, Financial or other Commercial Data!) or the recipient of the call from the Mobile Phone either Website/Mobile User or even Landline User!

    This breaks Wiretap Laws, Telegraph Laws & many other Laws!

    This sort of lack of respect for Personalities Information & “the Systematic Disrespect” for Organized Civilization is far too similar to the 1930’s & what did that lead to!

  9. I think Opt-in is the only way to do these type of programs. If the value is clearly explained to the customer it seems like it could be a good thing? Lower priced services and better ad or offers. ?

    What I’d like to understand or read more about here are the other potential down sides to having behavioral targeting (or whatever you want to call it). Does it stand to reason that if you are not doing anything bad (A-Rod) than you shouldn’t really worry? Or is this being naïve.

    Safe travels

  10. There should be quite a howl going on right now throughout America about any companies colluding in the creation of applications based on “the surveillance business model.” Sadly, repercussions from the economic crisis seems to be occupying most of the available gray matter if not the time, of those who best know how and would dare to use it to incite protections of our right to privacy so cherished by Americans. Peggy Noonan, where are ye?

  11. This is just truly incredible, and shames the UK for all the world to see.

    No communication company should ever reveal to a third party the sender, recipient, or content of a communication that is entrusted to them. And in the case of mobile telcos that data includes the location of sender and recipient too.

    Its a concept called client confidentiality, and when you betray that trust you can expect your arrogance will leave your reputation in shreds.

    Opt in is a nonsense. You need consent from both parties to make this legitimate, for reasons of copyright, and economic espionage.

    I’m truly ashamed and appalled by what is happening in to the UK Communication industry.

    Its an utter disgrace to a nation formerly considered a free country. Please avert your eyes while we try to remediate this issue by prosecuting those responsible.

  12. Privacy is a huge concern as you point out. But if they are smart, the behavioral targeting will work on an opt-in basis. If you opt-in, it could work as a customer loyalty progrem…rewards in return for mining behavior. If you choose not to opt-in then no rewards and no data mining.