Remember last year when Verizon tried to trick its mobile users into trading incredibly personal information for a lame “rewards” program that only gave consumers near-worthless points in an auction game? Starting next month, it makes a lot more sense, thanks to the Verizon-AOL deal.
Through “Verizon Selects,” people who took offers of upteen-thousand bonus points found out later they could only use those points to bid on benefits like gift cards, echoing programs you see advertised on late-night TV. In exchange, Verizon granted itself the right to track users’ location, and a bunch of other sensitive information. (You can read my story from last year here.) Much of that data falls under the CPNI rule — Customer Proprietary Network Information. Federal Communications Commission rules offer consumers strong protection against sharing of CPNI data. Firms like Verizon must affirmatively gain users’ consent. Hense, the wacky auction points program. (Since last year, it appears Verizon has added a few other features to its rewards programs, mainly travel discounts that others say are still dubious.)
You’ve probably already guessed where this is going. Verizon users received a notice recently explaining what the AOL-Verizon deal will mean to their privacy. Briefly, it means Verizon Selects users can expect the ads they see on places like the Huffington Post to become far more personal.
“As you may have heard, AOL recently became part of Verizon. We are providing you this notice to explain how Verizon and AOL will work together, and how this combination will help us deliver services that are more personalized and useful to you,” the notice says. And here goes:
“The Relevant Mobile Advertising program uses your postal and email addresses, certain information about your Verizon products and services (such as device type), and information we obtain from other companies (such as gender, age range, and interests). The separate Verizon Selects program uses this same information plus additional information about your use of Verizon services, including mobile Web browsing, app and feature usage, and location of your device,” it says. “The AOL Advertising Network uses information collected when you use AOL services and visit third-party websites where AOL provides advertising services (such as Web browsing, app usage, and location), as well as information that AOL obtains from third-party partners and advertisers.”
Every firm tries to personalize ads now, of course. But location data from mobile users — CPNI data in general – is the Holy Grail for this. To conjure up a scenario, the next time you read a Huffington Post story, the site may know that you are a Verizon user, and it may know what you’ve been doing with your cell phone recently, including where you’ve been. In a perfect world, I suppose that means you’ll get a great 20 percent off coupon just as you walk into a Chipotle.
“For example, an advertiser wants to reach females, over 40, who live in a specific town,” Verizon spokesman David Samberg told USA Today. “We provide the advertiser with the ability to have its ad served to people who are part of the group they want to address.”
In an imperfect world, you feel like you’re being stalked. And hackers will be able to uncover a treasure trove about you, all tied up in one tidy place for them.
Verizon says it will anonymize the data, though plenty of studies have shown there isn’t really an effective way to truly anonymize such data. Still, many consumers might be fine with this kind of advertising. More power to them, and to Verizon.
Still, if you fell for the Verizon rewards program, did you really think that would mean the Huffington Post would have access to your location information? Almost certainly not. This is the problem with obtaining “permissions” and “consent” in our time. You never really know what entity might end up with your data.
For all those reasons, I urge you to visit Verizon’s (refreshingly simple) opt-out page and decline to participate in all these things. Be sure to click save changes after each selection. You can also get out of Verizon Selects by visiting the page for that program.