How Cell Phone Carriers Track You and Sell Your Data

Everyone has heard by now about the Facebook tracking scandal with Cambridge Analytica. In that instance, Facebook users’ personal information was collected and sold to marketing agencies. What brought this to light was the 2016 election. User information was being sold to campaigns to help them better influence voter perspectives on topics to sway the election in their favor- which is a frightening concept. What many people don’t realize though is this data harvesting happens EVERY DAY! Your behavior and information is constantly being tracked and monetized across your social media, browser, web searches, emails, apps, and anything else you do online. With just a small piece of information like your IP address (which any website can pick up), your email, or a snippet of your search history organizations can reliably guess your full identity. The most common use of all this tracking is to retarget you with ads. For example, let’s imagine your sister just got a new golden retriever and you end up visiting a site about pets. Then you go to a completely different site and start seeing ads to pet food or pet toys.

While most websites and apps will track and store some information about you they can only really access information you provide while on their platform (but not necessarily). For example, if you’re shopping on Amazon. They will only be able to know what you do amd search while on their site and what location you do your searching from. However, there are certain companies that can get information you provide across all platforms - the companies that provide you internet. ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) have the ability to monitor all of your internet use because they are the ones that provide the internet. Cell phone carriers in particular can track almost your whole existence. They have access to your geo location, what you do online, who you call, and who you text. Cell phones are interwoven into our daily lives, meaning cell phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T have direct oversight into your life.

I’m not here to scare you though! For the most part this data collection is not malicious. In fact, as someone who studies data science for a career, I love the idea of more data being collected. Used properly, user data can make your tools or apps more efficient, more useful, and lead to an overall better user experience. Plus, the large carriers have recently agreed to “limit” the sale of user data, but that certainly does not mean they will come close to stopping. People should be hyper aware of how their personal data is stored and used.

You might be thinking that none of this can be legal. Well it is legal. Companies get around privacy laws by including clauses in their terms of services that you agree to and by “anonymizing” user data- meaning any direct links back to you, such as your name, will have been removed. However, prediction systems are advanced enough that it is not difficult at all to piece together the data that is provided to easily find your true identity.

What do carriers do with my information?

Ok, so now that you know your cell phone company is tracking you, what do they do with your information? For the most part they sell it to marketing and advertising agencies. These agencies will then use your information to send you more targeted ads. However, carriers also sell your information to almost anyone. They sell your information to the companies you interact with so that they have a better sense of their audience, they sell information to government contractors, and a multitude of other large organizations.

Why should I care?

If you don’t care about the breach of privacy and don’t really care about seeing a few targeted ads or people knowing where you are all the time then we need to at least hold these companies to extremely high standards of security when dealing with our personal information. Even if a company does not sell or use our data in a malicious manner their systems can still be breached (top data breaches of 2017). In July of 2017, 14 million Verizon subscribers had their information stolen and other occurrences are not uncommon. You may at least care that with our information these large companies have the power to influence our communities and society in a dramatic way. The 2016 election is just one example of how our collective information can be used in terrifying ways. Humans are very susceptible to suggestion and persuasion so if a corporation or government knows everything about you it will not be difficult to skew your perspective on anything.

What can I do about this?

The first thing is to become aware of the prolific tracking capabilities of all the organizations you interact with each day. Then do research about these companies. You should always be asking yourself “Does this company practice good data security? Does this company sell my data? Does this company have my best interests at heart?” Unfortunately, the answer is rarely yes, but there are companies out their that pride themselves on not tracking user behavior. Search engines such as DuckDuckGo are just one example of many companies that pride themselves on not tracking user behavior. Another such company is Community Phone. Community Phone is a mobile carrier that does not track internet behavior or sell any user information. Seek out companies like those two! You can also look into using VPN services for your internet traffic to mask your location and other pieces of personal information. If you aren’t familiar with VPN’s check out this link for a more detailed description. In the end, it’s nearly impossible to live in the modern era and avoid any form of tracking though.

So, you don’t need to become paranoid about your data, it’s already out there. However, you should be aware of what companies are doing with it and aiming to only do business with those companies that respect your privacy.

John LaGue

8/29/2018