Your Mobile Carrier Will Sell You for Pennies

Five major UK carriers are banding together to pool customer data so that it can be put into a giant database and then be used to sell advertising, The Register reports today. How long do you think it will take before this “database” idea lands on American shores? First they charge you hundreds of dollars for calls, then they sell you for pennies.

This is no different than, say, Phorm, NebuAd or any of the other tricks being cooked up by service providers in a desperate attempt to recreate Google’s (s goog) business model. In the process, they are playing loose and fast with people’s privacy. Jeez, no wonder people hate their phone companies. 🙂

When placed up against a larger canvas, it seems clear that Internet companies — be they providers of web, broadband or wireless services — have little to no regard for consumer privacy or consumer rights. Giving such efforts fancy names like “behavioral targeting” or “contextual advertising” is merely an attempt to make them more palatable to users.

Remember the Beacon advertising system by Facebook? It looked innocent enough, until one dug underneath the surface, that is. Speaking of Facebook, have you read about some of the changes to its terms of service? The move may not mean anything to its 175 million-odd customers, but it’s a great example of the prevailing attitude towards privacy (or rather, the lack thereof) on the Internet.

Getting back to the wireless data consortium — they talk about using that data anonymously. Which is utter poppycock. There is no such thing as anonymous data on the web. Look at how A-Rod got nailed. The New York Times writes:

We are typically told that personal information is anonymously tracked for one reason — usually something abstract like making search results more accurate, recommending book titles or speeding traffic through the toll booths on the thruways. But it is then quickly converted into something traceable to an individual, and potentially life-changing.

The article quotes Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who calls it “the surveillance business model.”

We took whatever was done offline and put it on steroids…It requires compliance with the kind of promises that comes with this kind of data collection.

EFF says that online services should voluntarily destroy all the data they collect or else they risk finding themselves in the same situation as the baseball player’s union. They didn’t destroy the samples and well, now we have the A-Fraud debacle.