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).
- "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."
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'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.
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