What Does My Cell Phone Carrier Know About Me?

By Nicholas Pell

With the recent revelations about how the U.S. National Security Agency is monitoring some of our personal communications, everyone has the sense that their phone may be a tool used for spying on them. But while the issue of government surveillance has been tackled time and again, what has been less explored is private surveillance. How much does your mobile service provider know about you? What are they doing with the information? And if you don’t like the answers, is there anything you can do about it?

The Frightening Truth

All four of the major carriers in the United States are selling your data, with Verizon as the biggest offender. Carriers sell your information to marketers who then target you for advertising based on places you go -- including where you go to have fun, where you go during the day and where you lay your head at night.

If you’re starting to get a little creeped out, you’re not alone.

Your service provider’s knowledge goes beyond where you’ve been. Cell phone providers build extensive profiles of customers based on more than 800 attributes, including income level, age and ethnicity. Using these attributes, they can create a specific profile of who you are as a consumer -- and that’s valuable information for companies that want to market to you.

In general, you can expect this information to be shared with any organization willing to pay for it. The major carriers won’t say much more, except that they sell only “anonymized and aggregated” data, which implies that it’s not tied directly to your name or other identifying information.

What Can You Do About It?

The good news is that you have the right to opt out of data sharing, although there doesn’t seem to be any way to opt out of data collection. TextSecure is an app that encrypts your text messages to friends, while Cellcrypt encrypts your actual phone calls. Using Wi-Fi for communication keeps your data use off cell providers’ networks -- but puts it on an Internet provider’s network, where the same privacy questions come into play all over again. Shutting off all location services on your phone will limit your provider’s ability to know where you are, but not entirely.

So the short answer to “what can I do about it?” is not much. We live in an age where true privacy is rare, if not nonexistent. Unless legislation does a better job of protecting consumers, don’t expect much to change.

Nicholas Pell  is a freelance writer based in Hollywood, CA. He writes about music, personal finance and technology for publications such as LA Weekly, Salon and Business Insider. He’s been online since the days of Usenet groups and bulletin board systems.


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