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Report: Verizon Sells Smartphone App Usage, Browsing and Location Data; Critics Claim Wiretap Issues

Posted Oct 18, 2012 3:33 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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A CNET News report that Verizon Wireless is selling aggregated information about its customers' geographic location, application use and Internet browsing habits has raised questions about whether this practice could violate laws against wiretapping.

Verizon says that its Precision Market Insights program, which offers reports to third-party marketers about customers' smartphone usage, is legal because it doesn't reveal the identity of individual customers and customers can opt out, the article explains. The phone service provider says the aggregated information provided to marketers could be linked to third-party databases that contain information about customers' ages, gender and even whether they are a "sports enthusiast, frequent diner or pet owner."

At a conference earlier this year, Bill Diggins, who heads the U.S. arm of the marketing initiative, said of customers: "We're able to view just everything that they do," calling the data that can be collected by doing so "the new oil."

However attorney Hanni Fakhoury of the Electronic Frontier Foundation questions whether a wireless carrier's disclosure to third parties about specific URLs that a customer visits could violate the federal Wiretap Act, which generally provides that carriers may not "divulge the contents of any communication."

Fakhoury tells CNET that she doesn't "see any substantive difference between collecting content from one person and turning it over to someone, and collecting it from multiple people, aggregating that information and then turning the aggregated data over to someone else. In the end, there is still a capturing of content from the user at some point—and that's what the potential problem is."

A Lifehacker page offers step-by-step instructions to Verizon customers who wish to opt out.

Additional and related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "New Facebook Program Matching Users, Brick-and-Mortar Retail Data Sparks Complaint to FTC"

ABAJournal.com: "Some Advertisers Say Their Compliance with Computer Browser Do-Not-Track Feature Is Optional"

Atlantic Wire: "The Possible Privacy Violations of Verizon's Cell Phone Tracking Program"

The Not-So Private Parts: "Verizon Very Excited That It Can Track Everything Phone Users Do And Sell That To Whoever Is Interested"

The Inquisitr: "Verizon To Start Spying On Customers To Improve Ad Selection"

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