Phone companies sell customer data

Instead of merely offering a trusted conduit for communication, carriers are coming to see subscribers as sources of information that can be mined for profit.

By MSN Money Partner May 22, 2013 2:54PM

Wioman on phone outside a Verizon Wireless storeBy Anto Troianovski, The Wall Street Journal Wall Street Journal on MSN Money

Big phone companies have begun to sell the vast troves of data they gather about their subscribers' locations, travels and Web-browsing habits.


The information provides a powerful tool for marketers but raises new privacy concerns. Even as Americans browsing the Internet grow more accustomed to having every move tracked, combining that information with a detailed accounting of their movements in the real world has long been considered particularly sensitive.


The new offerings are also evidence of a shift in the relationship between carriers and their subscribers. Instead of merely offering customers a trusted conduit for communication, carriers are coming to see subscribers as sources of data that can be mined for profit, a practice more common among providers of free online services like Google (GOOG) and Facebook (FB).

New streams of income 

When a Verizon Wireless customer navigates to a website on her smartphone today, information about that website, her location and her demographic background may end up as a data point in a product called Precision Market Insights. The product, which Verizon launched in October 2012 after trial runs, offers businesses like malls, stadiums and billboard owners statistics about the activities and backgrounds of cellphone users in particular locations.


Several European mobile-network operators have launched similar efforts. This week, German software giant SAP (SAP) is introducing a service that will gather smartphone-use and location data from wireless carriers and offer it to marketing firms.


Carriers acknowledge the sensitivity of the data. But as advertisers and marketers seek more detailed information about potential customers and the telecom industry seeks new streams of revenue amid a maturing cellphone market, big phone companies have started to tiptoe in.


The companies say they don't sell data about individuals but rather about groups of people. Privacy advocates say the law permits them to do so. In 2011, Verizon sent notice to customers saying they may use their data in this way.


Chris Soghoian, a privacy specialist at the American Civil Liberties Union, says the ability to profit from customer data could give wireless carriers an incentive to track customers more precisely than connecting calls requires and to store even more of their Web browsing history. That could broaden the range of data about individuals' habits and movements that law enforcement could subpoena, Soghoian says. "It's the collection that's the scary part, not the business use."

No data on corporate or government clients 

Verizon responds that the data it analyzes for Precision Market Insights is information it already collects and that it complies with legal processes when it gets requests for information from law enforcement.


The carrier also says that it will sell only broad information about groups of customers, and that the program won't include information from Verizon's government or corporate clients. Most other individuals' data will be used by default, but people can opt out on Verizon's website.


Jeff Weber, AT&T's president of content and advertising sales, says his company is studying ways to sell and analyze customer data for advertisers while letting customers opt out, but so far the company doesn't have a product akin to Verizon's.


It's tricky territory. Last year, Spanish carrier Telefonica provoked a political outcry in Germany over its plans to sell aggregated location data and eventually said it didn't plan to launch the program there.


Verizon's data service is being used by the Phoenix Suns. The basketball team has used it to map where people attending its games live in order increase advertising in areas that haven't met expectations, says Scott Horowitz, a team vice president.


The carrier, a joint venture between Verizon Communications (VZ) and Vodafone Group (VOD), has used its data to tailor its own marketing message, according to Colson Hillier, who oversees the data-mining program.

All about eyeballs 

Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings (CCO), one of the world's biggest billboard companies, has agreed to conduct a trial of the Precision service, according to Suzanne Grimes, Clear Channel's North America president. She says the service could allow billboard owners to measure how likely someone driving by is to go to the store being advertised. "You've got an industry that was historically about eyeballs," she says. "Now you know more about who those people are and what their behavior looks like."


SAP's offering will take an even broader approach. SAP Mobile Services President John Sims says the service will sift through huge volumes of data about how and where people use their mobile devices and then share the revenue from selling the information with the wireless carriers providing the data.


SAP hasn't said which carriers it's working with, but it described the process. When a smartphone user clicks on a Web link, the action will generate a data point, including basic information about the website the user is visiting along with the user's location as precisely as within 30 feet and demographic data.


SAP will then aggregate and analyze that individual subscriber data and provide statistics to clients about the usage habits at a particular location of groups of as few as 50 people. One possible use: Retailers worried about "showrooming," or inspecting products that the shopper will eventually buy online, can find out what websites people visit on their phones when they're in their stores.


Mat Sears, a spokesman for U.K. wireless operator EE, a joint venture of Deutsche Telekom  and France Telecom, says the company is evaluating the SAP product and views the ability to sell and analyze data about how people use their smartphones as "a potentially game-changing opportunity."


Meanwhile, Americans have become more comfortable disclosing their locations via social-media services like Twitter and Foursquare. Indeed, as carriers get more involved in data mining, they could find themselves competing with those companies and Internet giants like Google and Facebook.


But the carriers say that they have more comprehensive data. "This is the information that everyone has wanted that hasn't been available until now," says the Suns'  Horowitz.


More from The Wall Street Journal

May 22, 2013 3:40PM

Law makers have not kept up with technology when it comes to privacy. But general laws could be passed to do it. Where are our elected officials? Do nothing Congress.

May 22, 2013 4:04PM
Each and every one of us has become a nameless faceless money machine to large corporations, banks, stock brokers and the government. When will people get enough of the corruption and disregard for individual rights? Every time you re-elect the same congresscrooks you are giving away your soul and your money. 
May 22, 2013 4:46PM

How come you still have to pay for cell and cable service if they are data mining you for profit? Just asking....

May 22, 2013 4:52PM
what we need is a law that says my info is mine and 1) if you want to sell it you have to ask each time, 2) and i get f#$king paid for it!!!!
May 22, 2013 3:33PM
Lets stay with verizon their bill is super high and now they check your data and sell it to the highest bidder great!
May 22, 2013 4:42PM
I am sick and tired of my personal information being sold to the highest bidder.
Screw 'em ... every one of 'em !!!

May 22, 2013 4:50PM
May 22, 2013 4:41PM
We really need to have new laws to stop invasions of privacy like this. I hope that someone sues the crap out of the phone companies.
May 22, 2013 5:03PM

Somehow phone companies will figure out a way to charge you for them selling your private information. I called up Cablevision when they came out with their $3.00 fee on the Sports Package and asked what it was for and the gentleman said in essence that they were charging me $3.00 in order to keep the other companies from charging me more. I just wanted to bang my head against the wall after hearing that utter bullsh*t.


If I take a photo of a celebrity, I can't profit by it (you will have 20 lawyers at your front door before you can turn on the History Channel that no longer shows history), but somehow phone companies can take the information of where I am, where I shop, what I buy, where I drive, who I call, how long I stay somewhere, what I buy, etc. and sell that for profit all the while coming out with price increases and new fees every month.

May 22, 2013 4:01PM
Get use to it it's what all companies are doing. Anything to make a buck is all they care about. Got to exceed all projections for shareholders, no matter what the cost.
May 22, 2013 9:06PM
Big Brother is on both the Left and the Right.
May 22, 2013 9:21PM

Who works in tandem with the phone companies?

Who owns the largest depository of our confidential information?
The Credit Bureaus! 
Who is the largest reseller of our most confidential information?
The Credit Bureaus!
Who decides what is sold about you and to whom?
The Credit Bureaus!
How do they get away with this?
Because we let them, and like Identity Theft, it doesn't concern us until it is too late!

May 22, 2013 7:29PM
My whole purpose in life is to return all those "postage paid" envelopes that are sent to me as advertisement with some other companies crap in it. I get at least eight a week and it cost the companies .46 to get it back.  I love my work!!! 
May 22, 2013 5:27PM
it is this advertising thing that's out of control and it is feeding not only companies but also individuals, such as athletes.  with all this cash coming in form ads, would an NFL or MLB player get a $200 mil. contract?  NEVER!
May 22, 2013 8:10PM
this invasion of privacy because of modern tech needs to stop...or we need to make some rules...apparently we are at the mercy of the business in this country and our gov bows before them...which is how they circumvent the rights of people for a buck...I love this for sale country...everything is for sale...the temp of your house data is for period timeline is for that I conveniently get ads every 28 days for pads...this is corruption and it is destroying Americans...maybe not the stock market...or the gov..but you and me are being destroyed...or its actually more like being viciously mulled by a flock of flamingos over 50-80yrs
May 22, 2013 6:25PM
When contacted by an advertiser I get very abusive and tell them that my phone company is the worst in the world. 
May 22, 2013 7:00PM
How is that different from the direct marketing business that, as I understand, is allowed by CONgress?  Anyone can buy list from direct marketing agencies for the purpose of harrasing you with endless ads, letters, emails, phone calls.  And, CONgress allows them to do it?  How is it different from insurance companies offering all sorts of insurance scams...and so called medicare supplement policies that are relentless in pestering you.  I called the Utah State Insurance bunch, whatever they are called.  Old gal there told me it was "perfectly legal" for medicare supplement junk offers to pester me.  CONgress allows it!  Don't you hate the "privacy notices" you have to fill out at a doctor's office seeming like every time you go?  Why??? CONgress lets medicare and SS distribute your information!
May 22, 2013 7:09PM
I made four turds today, three big ones and one little one.  I wonder if they need to add that to their information on me.  I mean it was like "plop, plop, plop, ping" but I felt better.
May 22, 2013 6:17PM
Now go read the article on paying your bills via your dumb-phone.
May 22, 2013 7:05PM
when I get a junk letter from medicare supplement scams, burial policy scams, extended coverage auto insurance repair scams, term life scams, and all theothers, I take time to sit down and write them a nasy ashed letter.  It costs me 46 cents, and time, but it has reduced the junk mail somewhat.  You will notice the insurance scams come from one address but the repies go to another.  And, you never get a policy until you've paid the premium.  If you cancel, they have a month on you anyway.  A SCAM in itself! ALLOWED by a sorry ashed CONgress. 
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