Telephone companies, wireless providers, and search engines are not just sharing data about your internet usage and call records with the National Security Agency. Many of them are also selling it to advertisers.
We’ve long known that Google sells data about our searches and Gmail activity to advertisers. This is why ads for Sam’s Club pop up on your browser if you run a search for Costco. Well, now big companies are selling data to advertisers as well. AT&T (which acquired Bell South) has announced plans to sell data it collects about subscribers’ habits to advertisers. That means if you call to order a takeout pizza, you might start seeing ads from pizzerias in your area cropping up on your browser. You might also start getting text messages and emails from Papa John’s and Dominos featuring their latest offers.
Huge Potential for Abuse
This isn’t just annoying; it’s also potentially a major violation of privacy. What’s to stop people other than advertisers, such as the FBI, private detectives, journalists, and credit bureaus, from buying that data to see who you’re calling and what you’re searching for?
Or for that matter, a foreign intelligence agency could set up a dummy company and buy that data as part of an effort to spy on American citizens. We now know that the NSA has been spying on Brazilians. It’s a safe bet that foreign intelligence agencies are spying on U.S. citizens for a wide variety of reasons.
Do you really want your employer to know that you’ve been searching for another job or calling headhunters to see what they can do for you? Or for a potential employer to know that you checked out the cost of a gambling junket to Las Vegas or beer online?
Somebody could even determine what your political beliefs are through this; say, if you made several visits to website for a particular political candidate.
Here’s the good news: You can opt out of such searches. This article explains how AT&T customers can tell the company they don’t want their information shared with advertisers.
Data Still Exists
Now here’s the bad news. Even if you tell your phone company that you don’t want the information shared, it still exists. That data can still be hacked or turned over to intelligence agencies or the FBI with a search warrant as our friend Edward Snowden has demonstrated. It could also be sold to hackers and other criminals by corrupt phone company employees.
It looks like there is as little privacy on our mobile devices as on the Internet. We’re going to have to make major changes to those technologies if we want to preserve our privacy.