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Verizon users must 'opt in' for privacy

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US operator Verizon Wireless is to log, and sell, customers' browsing and location history, unless the customers specifically opt out of being tracked at every turn.

Only anonymised data will be sold, according to an email sent out to customers and an update of the telco's privacy policy, but internally Verizon will use profiles of its customers based on the URLs visited, the handset and features they use, as well as their physical location. Personal data will be used for accurate delivery of advertisements, while anonymous statistics will be sold to analysts and other interested parties.

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That means a website that discovers it is receiving significant traffic from Verizon customers (based on the originating IP address) could ask the operator for a breakdown by age, or gender, for a fee. Meanwhile an advertiser could ask Verizon to target customers of a specific demographic, using a specific model of phone, within a specific location, unless the customers have manually opted out of the system.

Profiling customers is something many operators do, but generally with the permission of those customers and in exchange for a bribe of some sort. In the UK, O2 More and Orange Shots both promise exclusive offers and tokens, and the popularity of both services proves customers will exchange privacy for cheap stuff, but Verizon is taking that stage further by assuming consent and failing to offer a bribe.

Customers may decide to opt out, but the operator warns that "You will receive mobile ads whether you participate or not, but under the advertising program, ads may be more relevant to you".

All mobile operators are sitting on mountains of information, in fact the pure volume of data often intimidates operators into shying away from making use of it. Five years ago Malaysian operators were mining call records to identify popular teenagers, to discover who's worth advertising to, in one example of just how far operators could go.

In Europe the operators have moved very cautiously, with opt-in schemes such as O2 More and Orange Shots, as legislators stand ready to knock them back at the first sign of customer backlash.

In the USA privacy hasn't been such a big deal, and Verizon is taking a significant step forwards in assuming consent for targeted advertising and reselling of demographic data, it will be up to the customers to decide if they're prepared to let that happen. ®

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