Verizon app usage monitoring raises consumer privacy fears

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Consumer privacy advocates are calling into question a new Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) program that offers marketers information on subscribers' mobile Web and application usage patterns.

Verizon recently launched Precision Mobile Insights, which collects information on millions of subscribers to help advertisers identify information like which iOS and Android apps are in use in which geographic regions. According to Verizon, Precision Mobile Insights does not run afoul of legal issues because all data is aggregated and does not reveal subscribers' identities. In addition, customers may opt-out at any time.

"As a carrier, our consumers and brands look to us to really help them figure out mobile," Colson Hillier, Verizon's vice president of precision marketing, recently told FierceMobileContent. "We realized we had a latent asset. We have information about how customers are using their mobile phones… About a year ago, we worked with customers and advisory boards to devise a privacy policy that the company and customers were comfortable with and allowed us to take insights from the network and use technology to make that information anonymous--so none of it was personally identifiable--and create a series of tools that companies can use to better understand their consumers."

But Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells CNet that any wireless carrier that discloses information about which URLs a customer visits could violate the Wiretap Act, a federal law aimed at protecting consumer privacy in their communications with other persons. The Wiretap Act states that carriers may not "divulge the contents of any communication."

"I don'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," Fakhoury says. "In the end, there is still a capturing of content from the user at some point--and that's what the potential [Wiretap Act] problem is."

Ryan Radia, who serves as associate director of technology studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute think tank, agrees that disclosing aggregated URLs visited can pose legal risks. "If Verizon Wireless discloses the URLs you've accessed without your consent, it has violated [the Wiretap Act]--even if Verizon Wireless doesn't disclose any other identifying information," Radia says, but adds that if Verizon has obtained consent for the Precision Market Insights program by updating its privacy policy and allowing subscribers to opt-out, the operator has successfully satisfied Wiretap Act requirements.

Although Verizon Wireless declined to answer CNet's questions about the technology powering Precision Mobile Insights, the company did provide a statement reading "Verizon is committed to customer privacy and takes the issue seriously. The Precision program complies with the law and protects the privacy of our customers. The reports available through the program will not disclose the content of specific customer communications because each report will contain aggregate data from a large number of customers to protect privacy. Customers who do not want their data used as part of the program can opt-out at any time."

For more:
- read this CNet article

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