Blog Post

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 (s VZ) 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 (s MSFT) 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 (s GOOG) 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.

10 Responses to “Verizon Data-Sharing Hysteria Points to Larger Privacy Issues”

    • Perhaps it didn’t just emerge, but it is news nonetheless, and that’s only as a result of broad news venues picking up on it.

      More importantly, I only signed up for Verizon service within the last month, and was explicitly lied to when signing up for service, so this news is a valuable public service for me.

      I am a privacy freak. So much so, that I have never given my SSN to anyone for any reason other than employment or tax filing.So much so that I forbade my employer (when I was employed by someone else), from allowing health insurance companies access to it, which required them to figure out how to issue insurance cards and accounts without it (this is 20 years ago, before most were aware of ID theft and other privacy issues associated with over-disclosure of personal info.) So much so that after arguing with the Verizon sales desk for over 45 minutes that it is indeed possible to set up an account without a SSN, that they finally called in to their credit department and were told they could if they collected a $500 deposit from me, which I gladly paid.

      And, before I agreed to sign up, I confirmed that no personal information was ever disclosed to anyone for marketing purposes, and as the account was being registered, and they wanted my email address, I asked again how it might be used, and gave it only on the explicit affirmative statement of the store manager that none of my personal information was never disclosed, and it was only for sending of legal notices, etc. I also asked explicitly about marketing to my phone number, because a previous carrier had committed the cardinal sin of allowing people unknown to me to send text messages (spam) to my phone and then charging me for it. I was assured that Verizon did not do that, and had explicit rules against such marketing exploitation of my privacy and my money. So apparently this required opt-out provision was news to him too.

      So Byron, you can be snarky about demanding people do their homework, but there is a limit to how much due diligence anyone should be required to perform before buying any product, especially one as basic as a phone. And if I have made it clear by my statements and actions that privacy is extremely important to me, and that I want to be opted out of everything that doesn’t have my explicit permission, and not just the salesperson, but the store manager stands there and lies to me about how my private information will be treated, then I not only have a problem, I may have a right to legal recourse.

      I discovered this only by accident, and only because people like Om and David published it. I’m glad for the public service, and I’m glad that someone with David’s profile and following got noticed by the NY Times and by Om. No average consumer reads, and getting noticed by little tech publications does not constitute public disclosure of important issues of broad public concern. Do you actually suggest that one is obliged to imagine all the specific violations that all organizations might perpetrate against them, and then go searching the internet to see if that particular violation has already be found out? It’s easier to read 45 pages of small print to find the little gem. In addition to doing plenty of homework at time of sale via questioning of the company representatives, I also read the fine print I was given at the store, much to the frustration of everyone else, and there was no mention of this.

      Had high profile people like this not published the news (when they found out about it), I wouldn’t have found out until much later, and by that time we’re talking about the privacy violation being in the past, and lawsuits based on he-said she-said and trying to establish principles in precedent which Congress and the FCC seem determined not to guarantee in laws and regulations. No one wants to deal with that, so I appreciate this “news” being made public, because despite “doing my homework” (probably better than 99.997% of the population does), it was indeed news to me.

  1. “No consumer should have to negotiate an opt-out that arduous.”

    Indeed, no consumer should have to opt-out at all, the telco should be required to have explicit opt-in before it can proceed. It is only the US’ pathetic consumer protection laws abetted by a venal Congress (Telcos are the no. 1 campaign contributors) that allows such a travesty in the first place.

    • @Fazal

      I could not agree more. We have a bunch of fools in congress who are lackeys of big corporations. It annoys me no end that no one seems to care about the consumers at all, especially the greedy and corrupt politicians.