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New Verizon Policy Raises Cell Phone Privacy Concerns

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Have cell phone service through Verizon? You might want to take a look at your privacy settings.

Verizon, which recently acquired the advertising giant AOL, announced this week that starting in November, it's going to start sharing personally identifying information from mobile users "with vendors and partners who do work for us."

Verizon presented the change as a way to "help us deliver services that are more personalized and useful to you," and said those receiving the information are required to protect the information and use it only for services they are providing Verizon and AOL.

But consumer advocates see it differently.

John Simpson, privacy project director of the nonprofit organization Consumer Watchdog, said the policy is "an egregious violation" of of customers' privacy and people should opt out.

"If the company were actually concerned about their customers’ privacy, they would be offering these services on an opt-in basis," he said.

A Slate story characterized Verizon's plan as an "intrusive policy shift," saying that unless you opt out, "your phone isn’t just tracking information 'such as gender, age range, and interests'—it’s also using that information to help people sell you things."

According to Verizon's notice, information about users' location, postal and email addresses, mobile Web browsing, and app and feature usage will also be tracked and shared.

A ProPublica story noted another concern, saying that Verizon's tracking technique sends the information unencrypted, "so it can easily be intercepted." 

The story said Access, a digital rights organization, recently found that other large carriers such as AT&T and Vodafone "are also using a similar technique to track their users."

It also quoted Verizon's chief privacy officer, Karen Zacharia, as saying, "“I think in some ways it’s more privacy protective because it’s all within one company.” 

"Of course plenty of sharing of intel on web users and their web usage already goes on within the ad industry — often lurking unspecified behind bland descriptors in privacy policies that might vaguely refer to data-sharing agreements with 'third party providers' — so Verizon-AOL is by no means the only game in town," said a TechCrunch story.

But, it continued, Verizon "came under sharp scrutiny" earlier this year for the tracking program, named Relevant Mobile Advertising, which uses what has been called a "super cookie" to track browsing activities.

"The FCC launched a probe into the program and as a result of the concerns, Verizon let customers totally opt out of the program that put the super cookie into their mobile browsers," TechCrunch said, noting that AT&T Mobility "stopped that practice in November 2014 after a public outcry."

Users can opt out of being tracked in Verizon's Relevant Mobile Advertising program by visiting the privacy choices page in MyVerizon or calling 1-866-211-0874.

Verizon noted that those who have previously opted out of Relevant Mobile Advertising do not need to opt out again, and that using browser controls "such as clearing cookies on your devices or clearing your browser history is not an effective way to opt out of the Verizon or AOL advertising programs."