The Value Of Your Privacy: How Big Phone Companies Profit By Selling Your Data
You’re more valuable than you think.
At least you are to phone companies that use and sell your data.
Major phone companies have been sued for selling users’ data, but they continue to do so because the enormous profits outweigh the risks. We now know AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint have enabled the tracking of most American cell phones and the government has started to threaten fines.
Why do phone companies keep taking these risks and how can we fight back?
The Data Being Sold & Who’s Buying It
If you’re like me and do everything you can to avoid giving out your phone number, and yet are still bombarded with spam calls and text messages, it should come as no surprise that companies are selling your phone number. What you may find more shocking is that they’re selling your real-time location as well.
Last year, the aforementioned phone companies were all busted for partnering with LocationSmart, which took and sold data to Securus. Securus is a prison technology company that tracked phone owners’ locations without permission. It gets worse.
Securus was hacked and the hackers stole 2,800 phone numbers, usernames, email addresses, and hashed passwords of Securus users -most of which were law enforcement officers. While LocationSmart has been the focus of much criticism, they aren’t the only major company selling phone locations. Zumigo sells phone data to companies, such as Microbilt, which then sells your information to other companies in a domino effect.
One reporter gave a bounty hunter $300 and his phone number. That was enough for the bounty hunter to get the reporter’s data from a bail bond company (who bought the data from Microbilt). Unfortunately, for every major company we discover selling people’s phone data, there are likely more we haven’t caught yet.
How Phone Companies Benefit From Selling Your Data
Your phone provider wouldn’t sell your data if it didn’t benefit them. Unfortunately, giving away your data comes with a high monetary profit. It’s challenging to determine precisely how much money companies make off of your data, but we know it’s massive.
The average email address is worth $89, so you can imagine how much a phone number is worth. Data brokers collect consumer information and sell it to other brokers, companies, or individuals. The data brokerage industry generates $200 billion each year and continues to grow.
The Government’s Response to Phone Companies
As of the writing of this piece, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has proposed tentative fines against T-Mobile ($91 million), AT&T ($57 million), Verizon ($48 million) and Sprint ($12 million). The fines are based on how many outside companies they sold location information to as well as how much time they sold it “without reasonable safeguards.”
While this is a step in the right direction, these fines make no guarantee phone companies won’t continue to sell your data. It’s also unlikely any portion of these fines will end up in the wallets of the people whose locations were leaked. If customers want to personally benefit from the wrongdoings against them, they’ll need to take matters into their own hands.
How Consumers Can Protect Themselves & Fight Back
You can limit which apps you allow to know your location by taking the following steps:
- Open “Settings”
- Click “Privacy”
- Select “Location Services”
From there, you can see all the apps that want to use your location. Some will say they use it “Always,” others will be set to “While Using,” and others will say “Never.” Adjust each app to what you feel comfortable with. But while it’s easy to turn off location tracking on apps, phone companies are trickier. While phone companies have promised to stop selling your location, a promise that can’t necessarily be trusted, they continue to gather your data.
Sometimes to stop a company from doing something wrong, and to get your proper compensation for what they’ve already done, you need to take legal action. Luckily, you can find the proper channels for doing so online. For example, there is a step-by-step guide available for pursuing legal action against AT&T. If you want a more hands-off approach, you can hire an arbitration company to take care of the legal proceedings for you and only pay if you win.
You are entitled to your privacy, but if you don’t take precautions to protect it, phone companies can’t resist selling it. Turn on privacy settings where you can and be vocal about your privacy concerns. The FCC pays more attention the more complaints it receives. If you want compensation for wrongdoings that have already happened against you, don’t be afraid of the court system or seeking out arbitration. Your phone already knows where you are. Take the fight to where they are.