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Verizon starts tracking (and sharing) phone activity

Changes to its privacy policy will allow Verizon Wireless to record – and sell – information on users' Web browsing, location, and app usage. What does Verizon plan to do with that data?

By / October 14, 2011

A Verizon iPhone is shown the first day it was available at Verizon Wireless stores in February. This week, Verizon announced it can now track subscribers’ phone location, Web browsing history, and app usage habits, and can share that information (in an aggregated, nonpersonal way) with other companies.

Amy Sancetta/AP/File

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If you’re a Verizon Wireless customer, you probably noticed an e-mail from the company earlier this week announcing a change in its privacy policy. In case you missed it, that announcement included a pretty major privacy update: Verizon can now track subscribers’ phone location, Web browsing history, and app usage habits, and can share that information with other companies.

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If this feels a little creepy, consider a few clarifying points. Verizon says that it won’t share any information that can personally identify individual users. Instead, the company says, the data will be used in the aggregate for only two purposes: 1) to make ads that are more relevant for users, and 2) for “certain business and marketing reports.” (The full announcement is posted on Verizon’s website.) The collected data will affect ads on users’ cellphones and mobile devices as well as Verizon’s wired Internet offerings.

All of Verizon Wireless’s customers will be signed up for this new program by default, but anyone can choose to opt out through the company’s privacy page.

So what data is Verizon collecting, exactly? According to the announcement, it’ll be retaining the addresses of websites that users visit while on Verizon’s wireless network. (This can also include search terms customers have used.) It’ll also keep a record of phone locations and information about app and phone feature usage. Finally, it’ll track information about what kind of devices people are using and how much they're using them. All that information can be shared with advertisers and other outside companies, unless users choose to opt out.

It’s worth pointing out that while the data Verizon plans to share won’t be personally identifiable, it is aggregated with demographic and interest categories – things such as gender and age range, as well as broad identifiers such as “frequent diner” or “pet owner.” Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson says this data will “provide businesses with insights about their customers … to help provide content that is more appealing to users, or to help advertisers better select the ads they will display on outdoor billboards or at other venues,” according to the International Business Times.

One final note: While this privacy change is certainly newsworthy, Verizon isn’t the only telecom that collects and stores this kind of information. AT&T, Sprint, and all the other carries do it, too – and each company has different rules about how (or whether) they can use the data.

What do you think about these privacy changes? Let us know in the comments section below.

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