Why Verizon Wireless wants to share your data - and why I said no

Verizon Wireless recently announced changes to its Relevant Mobile Advertising Program that will allow the carrier to track your desktop surfing habits on the Web and use that information to help advertisers deliver targeted ads to your mobile phone. I found out about the change after logging into my Verizon Wireless account online and noticing this little message...

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...which lead to this much longer message:

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After reading through the Privacy Policy and FAQs links, I decided to click on the Privacy Choices page and opt out -- but maybe not for the reasons you'd think.

Here's the deal:

Very soon, Verizon Wireless says, it will assign an "anonymous unique identifier" to customers when they visit one of the company's websites. That identifier will be used to track the web sites you visit while you're browsing from your desktop or laptop online -- nothing new here. But the identifier will also allow Verizon Wireless to link that information back to your mobile account so that the carrier can offer advertisers the opportunity to use that information to deliver what's known as behaviorally targeted advertising to you. That advertising will appear in the mobile apps you run and the sites you browse from your mobile device. According to the Verizon Wireless Customer Privacy Settings page, "...we will use an anonymous, unique identifier we create when you register on our websites. This may allow an advertiser to use information they have about your visits to online websites to deliver marketing messages to mobile devices on our network."

You won't see more ads, but the ones you do see will be targeted to you based on what interest buckets you fall into. (Want even more ads? You can sign up for Verizon Selects, which sends you additional targeted ads by "postal mail, email, text, Internet and mobile advertising.")

Advertisers already can deliver what are called "contextual" ads -- a game ad for a visitor to a gaming fan site, for example. But with online tracking the carrier gathers the history of your online behavior, runs some analytics on it and puts your name into different interest-based groups that advertisers covet. This allows the delivery of ads to be more accurately targeted to just those people who fit a very specific profile. So when you go to a news site, for example, you might see an ad for mobile phone cases while someone else sees a diaper ad. Verizon Wireless doesn't share your name or information with the advertisers -- that would be giving away the store. But it does offer advertisers an opportunity to deliver ads to groups of its customers with the interests they're looking for.

Verizon Wireless was already gathering most of this information about you. This includes your account information, mobile voice and data use, demographics about you that it gathers from data brokers and other sources, and your online activity across the web. What it's doing now is pulling all of that together in one place.

What's in it for you? Ads. You receive ads that are potentially more relevant to your interests instead of the normal ones you'd see.

What's in it for Verizon Wireless? Money. It receives a premium for helping to deliver ads to a more targeted segment of its subscriber base who presumably are more likely to buy.

It's possible that you might like this idea. For example, if you're researching the purchase of a new tablet computer you might like seeing offers from other sellers. And once retailers start rolling out location tracking in stores it's possible that you could receive texted coupons just by walking by a storefront. The problem with interest-based advertising is that it can also feel creepy when, for example, a certain set of ads associated with something you researched on Amazon.com suddenly start following you around the Web.

What Verizon Wireless is doing is exactly the same as what Google and other Web 2.0 businesses are doing on the Web. The difference is that with Google I have an implicit bargain: They provide me with popular online services -- Gmail, Google Docs, Sites, YouTube, Hangouts, etc. -- that I use for free in exchange for allowing them to make money by delivering targeted advertising to me. Customer service is limited, but the price is right. In contrast, Verizon Wireless offers excellent customer service and reliable performance, but I pay a premium for it.

Money talks. If I'm going to allow the sharing of my personal information by Verizon Wireless -- and I consider my browsing history to be very personal -- I'd like something more than just seeing targeted ads in return. How about an offer to waive airtime or data overcharges for one month of my choice every six months? Or how about 700 free airtime minutes? Or an extra 2GB per month on my data plan?

Information is the coin of the realm. So if you have a choice, why give it away?

What's your personal data worth? Are you giving it up? And if so, are you getting value in return?

Note: You can view information about Verizon Wireless' Relevant Mobile Advertising Program Enhancement here. To review your data sharing options visit the Privacy Choices page (the Privacy Choices link won't take you to the page unless you log into your Verizonwireless.com account first). With the exception of Verizon Selects, customers are participating in all data sharing programs by default.

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