T-Mobile The Latest Snooping Company To Pretend 'Anonymized' Data Means Anything
from the not-so-'uncarrier' dept
As companies like Google shift away from individual behavior tracking in their ad efforts, telecoms like T-Mobile are headed in the opposite direction. The wireless giant this week announced it would be automatically enrolling all of its customers (including recently acquired Sprint customers) in a new behavioral tracking and ad system the company is launching on April 26. Whereas Google is shifting to its FLOC system that tends to clump consumers into groups of like minded consumers (an approach that still comes with its own issues), T-Mobile is doubling down on individualized targeting, and will start sharing its customers? web and mobile-app data with advertisers.
While this sort of tracking is nothing new for AT&T and Verizon, it’s a shift away from T-Mobile’s more consumer friendly branding, and will be something new for recently acquired Sprint customers. Fortunately users can opt out of the tech, though that may not always mean what you think it does. AT&T, for example, has historically viewed “opting out” as meaning “we will no longer hit you with targeted ads based on your online data,” not that they won’t gather data whatsoever. Other times in telecom, opting out can easily be reverted to opting in without the consumer really knowing.
T-Mobile, like so many companies before it, tries a bit too hard to hide behind the claim that “anonymization” of individual user data makes collecting it ok, something that’s been disproven by a repeated barrage of different studies. It only takes a small number of additional data points to quickly make users not so anonymous.
One investigation of “anonymized” user credit card data by MIT found that users could be correctly “de-anonymized” 90 percent of the time using just four relatively vague points of information. Another study looking at vehicle data found that 15 minutes? worth of data from just brake pedal use could lead them to choose the right driver, out of 15 options, 90% of the time.
Despite this, companies continue to toss around the word “anonymization” as some kind of get out of jail free card, as if the terminology means anything. Case in point: T-Mobile’s comments to the Wall Street Journal, which were thankfully quickly corrected by the EFF’s Aaron Mackey:
“T-Mobile said it masks users? identities to prevent advertisers and other companies from knowing what websites they visit or apps they have installed. The company tags the data with an encoded user or device ID to protect the customers? anonymity.
But privacy groups say those IDs can be linked back to people by comparing different data sets.
?It?s hard to say with a straight face, ?We?re not going to share your name with it,? ? said Aaron Mackey, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer-privacy advocate. ?This type of data is very personal and revealing, and it?s trivial to link that deidentified info back to you.”
T-Mobile’s move comes in stark, opposite contrast to the shifting winds across the rest of the tech sector as America belatedly considers having a privacy law for the internet era. It also comes fresh off the telecom industry successfully convincing at least half of DC that “big tech” is the only sector worth thinking and worrying about, and “big telecom” is comprised of nothing less than a group of utterly innocent sweethearts.