Verizon Data-Sharing Hysteria Points to Larger Privacy Issues

It emerged over the weekend that Verizon Wireless was trying to share your cell phone data with “affiliates, agents and parent companies.” David Weinberger read the fine print on a recent 45-page Verizon mailing to discover that tidbit, and posted a really clear set of instructions to opt out.

His worries and the subsequent media hysteria are something of a tempest in a teapot. Verizon clarified to me that only Verizon and Vodafone (which splits ownership of Verizon Wireless with Verizon Communications) get that subscriber information — not Verizon affiliates such as Microsoft or other Verizon Wireless business partners. Read Verizon’s take on this here, where the company says that the policies have been in place since October and are designed for intra-carrier communication only.

But in a broader sense, Weinberger’s fears shouldn’t be belittled. Carriers are trying to make more money off of their relationships with you (read: personal data). Weinberger documented how he tried a few different ways to opt out; he finally had to escalate his request to a manager via the phone before he found the means to opt out. No consumer should have to negotiate an opt-out that arduous.

The entire hullabaloo emphasizes how little control consumers (or maybe it’s just us terms-of-service-reading-bloggers) feel like we have in an age of increasing transparency. Whether it’s Google asserting that there’s no longer any such thing as privacy, fears of a carrier tapping into your web surfing for money, your social network using your movements online as ads, or your location data being mined for ads and government searches, we are living in an age in which our private lives are being acted out in public — or at least are accessible to the public.

It’s a more transparent life, but at the same time, the policies governing this new transparency are opaque — clouded in legal terms and emerging regulations. We actually have little to no idea how much information we are sharing and with whom. That uncertainty, combined with the knowledge that our privacy is under threat, makes us vulnerable to the slightest perceived infraction. It’s better than apathy, but it’s also something citizens, the government and the corporations holding onto this data need to start talking about in honest terms, rather than in 45-page pamphlets.

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