Your cell phone provider is also an internet service provider (ISP). Whenever you’re not using WiFi to connect to the internet, you’re using your cellular data plan. That means that your cellular provider has a front row seat to viewing everything you do on the internet. This mobile tracking includes all the apps you have running that may be making random connections to servers in the background, whether you’re actively using them or not. This can give away a lot of truly personal information about you, which your cellular service provider is happy to exploit for money.
We Allowed This to Happen
Back in 2015, the FCC had put in place protections on user privacy, set to go into effect in 2017. Prior to this, it wasn’t really clear what sort of tracking was “okay”. At one point, AT&T and Verizon were caught tracking us and shamed into curtailing those programs. But then we elected a new President and a new Congress, and we got a new FCC chair who did not believe in Net Neutrality or user privacy. They not only reversed the earlier FCC ruling, but pretty much banned it from ever happening again.
Verizon and AT&T have still managed to push it too far and incur some paltry fines, but at the end of the day, as things now stand, your cell phone provider is pretty much free to collect tons of information on you without getting your consent first. (Well, the argument actually is that you already gave your implicit consent by signing up for their service.)
This is why we can’t have nice things.
Mobile Tracking Run Amok
This week, Verizon decided to kick it up a notch. They’ve just announced a new “service” called Verizon Custom Experience. It’s the usual dark pattern euphemism for tracking: personalization. According to the FAQ, this program “helps [Verizon to] personalize our communications with you, give you more relevant product and service recommendations, and develop plans, services, and offers that are more appealing to you”. A guess what – here’s the really fun part: you’re automatically enrolled! Isn’t that helpful?
But honestly, this is just the latest in a long string of privacy intrusions by mobile providers. Despite Apple’s valiant efforts to rein in app tracking, they really can’t do anything about your cellular provider. Your carrier can track you without installing any apps at all. In order to use their services, they have to know where you are at all times. And unless you use a mobile VPN, they also see every single data packet that comes into or leaves your cell phone. (Now, today most connections are thankfully encrypted, so the contents are mostly protected – but not the metadata.)
Opting Out of Mobile Tracking
Out of the goodness of their hearts, mobile providers do offer some mechanisms for opting out of data collection. It’s unclear to me how effective these things are (and because it’s unregulated, we have no real way of knowing), but you should still try. If nothing else, it registers your desire for privacy and disdain for tracking.
Click the links below for detailed steps on how to opt out of these programs.