AT&T prepping sale of customers' anonymous location information and Web, app usage data

AT&T (NYSE:T) said it "may" begin selling anonymous information about its customers' wireless and Wi-Fi locations, U-verse usage, website browsing, mobile application usage and "other information" to other businesses. The carrier said it will protect its customers' privacy by providing the data in aggregate so it cannot be used to identify an individual. The carrier also said its customers can opt out of the program.

AT&T is not the first company to sell anonymous information about its customers' location and behavior. Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and most other Internet companies have long sold such data. In the wireless industry, Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) launched its Precision Market Insights business last year, which also anonymizes and sells customer location and usage information. Further, companies such as AirSage and SAP have recently begun selling aggregated location and usage information from wireless carriers.

The sale of such information falls under the "big data" movement, which IDC predicts will grow to nearly $24 billion by 2016.

Nonetheless, AT&T's plans are notable since they appear to combine wireless, TV and Wi-Fi usage data. AT&T is the nation's only major carrier that has fully integrated extensive wireless and wireline businesses (Verizon Wireless is jointly owned by Verizon Communications and Vodafone, and operates largely independently from its parent companies).

AT&T disclosed its plans in an update to its privacy policy. The carrier provided some examples as to how it might sell its customers' usage and location data:

  • "Reports for retail businesses that show the number of wireless devices in or near their store locations by time of day and day of the week, together with demographic characteristics of the users (such as age and gender) in those groups.
  • "Reports that combine anonymous U-verse TV viewing behaviors with other aggregate information we may have about our subscribers to create reports that would help a TV network better understand the audiences that are viewing their programs, those that are not, how frequently they watch, when they watch, and other similar information; and
  • "Reports for device manufacturers that combine information such as device type, make and model with demographic and regional location information to reflect the popularity of particular device types with various customer segments."

Interestingly, AT&T said it might also sell information about individual users, although it would keep that data anonymous. "For example, we might share anonymous U-verse TV viewing information with media research companies that combine this data with other information to provide audience analysis services about what shows certain audience segments are watching," AT&T noted in its privacy policy. "When we provide individual anonymous information to businesses, we require that they only use it to provide aggregate reports, and for no other purpose. We also require businesses to agree they will not attempt to identify any person using this information, and that they will handle it in a secure manner, consistent with this policy."

An AT&T spokeswoman declined to provide further details about AT&T's plans to sell anonymous customer data, including when such sales would start and how the offerings would be marketed.

AT&T already earlier this year announced that its new AdWorks Mobile Blueprint service can track its mobile users' behavior and is for sale to advertisers, allowing advertisers to target specific types of people with mobile ads. And AdWorks is mentioned in AT&T's new privacy policy: "AT&T may provide reports to advertisers and other business customers about the success of its advertising campaigns," the carrier wrote, noting that the data is anonymous and that users can opt out of the program. "Those reports contain aggregate information about the number of times a particular ad was viewed, when it was viewed, whether it was viewed on a TV, a mobile device or a computer, demographics associated with the viewing audience and other similar information."

AT&T's actions add fresh fodder to continuing concerns about Americans' privacy. Indeed, the FCC just last month ruled that wireless carriers must protect the information that sits on their subscribers' smartphones and other mobile devices (dubbed "customer proprietary network information" or CPNI). Carriers have long been required to protect CPNI data on their networks.

Further, the recent disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance programs, and in particular the program dubbed Prism that collects telephone metadata similar to CPNI from virtually every American phone call, has added greater resonance to the debate over privacy.

For more:
- see this AT&T blog post
- see this AT&T FAQ
- see this AT&T letter to subscribers (PDF)

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