Verizon’s data-sharing with AOL is worrisome, but not surprising

There was never any chance Verizon would refrain from bolstering AOL’s advertising network with the information it collects from its customers. The carrier paid $4.4 billion for an ad-dependent business; it’s not going to leave that business to its own devices, at least not where revenues are concerned.
So, it should come as little shock that Verizon planned to connect its “zombie cookies” — trackers that collect data from unencrypted connections unless a consumer opts out of the program — with AOL’s advertising network so it can better target specific demographics, as ProPublica reported earlier this week.
The zombie cookies allow advertisers to learn about someone’s “gender, age range, and interests.” When asked for comment on the information-sharing, a spokesperson linked to a blog post in which Verizon chief privacy officer Karen Zacharia says the data will only be shared to “Verizon companies, including AOL, and to a select set of other companies that help Verizon provide services.”
AOL’s Tim Armstrong defended the plan on Wednesday. “If consumers don’t trust you it’s not worth whatever you’re going to do with the data,” Armstrong said, according to a report from AOL-owned TechCrunch. “Verizon is probably more sensitive to data than most Internet companies.” He then compared data to oil and said information and fossil fuels can be used in good or bad ways.
Those defenses won’t carry much weight. There’s still something unsettling about knowing that one of the nation’s largest wireless carriers will be sharing information with an all-but-omnipresent ad network to assist its targeting. Verizon customers didn’t sign up for that when they decided to use the wireless network, nor when they visited any of the sites serving AOL’s advertisements.
Which lends some more credence to the idea that people might wish to install ad blockers. A spokesperson from Eyeo, the company behind AdBlock Plus, told me the tool “can technically help users to defend themselves against this kind of tracking.” Combine the desire to maintain a little bit of privacy with the time and money to be saved by using an ad-blocker, and it seems like a no-brainer.
Those benefits are especially funny when Verizon is involved. Using an ad-blocker to cut down on the amount of mobile data used could prevent many people from having to pay for going over their monthly data limit, while also preventing the company’s shiny multibillion-dollar acquisition of AOL from paying off because people don’t want its ad network to learn more about them.
Still, the company must be given credit for its efforts to let people know about the change. As Zacharia explains in her response to ProPublica’s reporting:

We are alerting customers who are eligible for these programs in the following ways: we’ve posted a notice on our website; customer bills will contain a message notifying them; and those customers for whom we have an email address will also receive an email notification.

I went through the process myself, and while it was frustrating having to “save changes” for every section within Verizon’s privacy controls, it was nice to have everything available right there. Who knows when I’ll have to switch everything off again (companies have a knack for forgetting someone’s preferences, at least where data collection is concerned) but for now it seems like everything’s good.
I’ll still leave the ad-blockers enabled, though. Verizon isn’t the only company trying to collect more information with what Walt Mossberg described as “a form of spyware, scooping up information about what people do online without their knowledge and permission.” So long as that remains true, it seems like a good idea to block ads, even if gives the media industry a series of panic attacks.

Today in Connected Consumer

Compared with Apple and Android, Windows doesn’t get a lot of great press. But it’s having a pretty good day today. The Wall Street Journal weighs in with an upbeat curtain-raiser on the new OS, and then gives the stock a plug. Digitimes claims that as many as 32 Windows 8 tablets could be introduced by the end of 2012, as part of an ambitious drive by Microsoft and Intel to push the iPad’s share of the tablet market under 50 percent worldwide. Even Walt Mossberg thinks Windows 8 is worth waiting for. Too bad Microsoft’s new lead partner for Windows Phone handsets, Nokia, can’t seem to get out of its own way.

Today in Connected Consumer

The long nightmare known as Vista is drawing to a close for Microsoft. In today’s Journal, the gruff but lovable uncle of tech reviewers, Walt Mossberg, gives the forthcoming OS a thumbs up. Mossberg’s seal of approval is an important milestone for any consumer-facing tech product, particularly in the computer space where his reviews have a big following. Overall, the positive buzz around Microsoft’s new PC OS is welcome news for the company, especially given how the company’s other OS products are fading into oblivion.

All Things Digital’s New App Puts Tech News On Your iPhone

allthingsdIf you’re a fan of the popular technology news and commentary web site All Things Digital (and you should be), then you’ll be glad to know there’s a new app available from the App Store today that optimizes the site for your iPhone. Use it to access the site’s daily columns, blog posts, or videos on the fly, and stay informed of breaking tech news 24/7.

The new app sports a set of cool tools that let users post their favorite stories directly to Twitter and easily share them on Facebook. It even accesses your contacts so you can quickly email blog posts you like to others right from the address book. Read More about All Things Digital’s New App Puts Tech News On Your iPhone