Your Phone Carrier Knows Too Much About You, Experts Say

There’s a lot of your data out there

Key Takeaways

  • A new Verizon program might be collecting information about your browsing history, location, apps, and contacts.
  • Verizon says the data that’s collected is meant to understand your interests.
  • To protect your privacy from wireless carriers, you should remove any software provided by your provider from your phone.
Boy playing game at night on smartphone while hidden under blankets

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Your smartphone carrier might know more about you than you think. 

A new Verizon program might be collecting information about your browsing history, location, apps, and contacts. The company says it uses the data to understand your interest, but some privacy advocates are sounding the alarm. 

"You should assume your wireless carrier captures at least some of the metrics associated with your browsing behavior," privacy and cybersecurity expert Sam Dawson at ProPrivacy told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Data Sinks

A recent report from Input notes that the "Verizon Custom Experience" app is set by default to allow access to your data. The company says on its website that participating in the Custom Experience programs helps it personalize its communications with you, giving you more relevant product and service recommendations. 

"For example, if we think you like music, we could present you with a Verizon offer that includes music content or provide you with a choice related to a concert in our Verizon Up reward program," the company writes. "You get the most personalized content and marketing when you opt-in to Custom Experience Plus because it allows us to use a broader range of information to better understand your interests."

Verizon also says that it does not sell information used in these programs to other companies for advertising purposes. 

Hand holding a smart phone for checking CCTV camera

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After being told by the FCC that it was illegal to sell their customer's location data to third parties, Verizon has pivoted to collecting data to provide targeted services, Dawson said. However, from the user's perspective, this doesn't offer much reassurance, he added.

"Given that your carrier is collecting deeply personal points of information about you, all it takes is a law change or a cybersecurity attack for that data to start making its way back into the hands of third parties," Dawson said. "Your data has a real-world dollar value."

While you could turn off the app's 'custom experience,' the best thing users can do is uninstall or not install the app on their device, Chris Hauk, a consumer privacy advocate at Pixel Privacy, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"While Verizon claims to not sell or share the information with advertisers, they are targeting users with specific services and content, which is a form of targeted advertising," he added.

Keeping Your Data Private

Wireless carriers generally don't provide much transparency around precisely which data they collect, Therese Schachner, a cybersecurity consultant with VPNBrains, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"We know that they track your location, the phone numbers you call and text, and how frequently you access the Internet," Schachner added. "Some carriers may also collect or sell customers' information, such as their ages, genders, and text message and email content, and use it for targeted advertising."

Your data has a real-world dollar value.

If you want to protect your privacy from wireless carriers, you should remove any software provided by your provider from your phone, Dawson said. 

"Uninstalling third-party apps on a carrier's phone is a good start, but you may find some apps are tied to the phone's operating system itself, and so you may wish to return to a factory version or stock image of the phone," he added. 

Even without the app, Verizon can see what you do online by monitoring your internet connection, Hauk claims. The reading of your data is legal since the FCC repealed broadband privacy rules in 2017.

"In my opinion, the Biden administration should reinstate those rules," Hauk added. 

To avoid ISP surveillance, you can use a VPN to encrypt your data and hide its destination, Hauk suggested. Some carriers allow you to limit their use of your data. With T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T, you can toggle your account settings to prevent them from using your data for analytics and advertising, Schachner said. 

Another potential problem is that once the carrier collects your data, the company itself could be the victim of a data breach. That's what happened to T-Mobile in August 2021, noted software developer Kevin Brandt in an interview with Lifewire. 

"When T-Mobile got hacked, it gave users an idea of just how much of their data is accessible by their carriers," he added. "These included their names, driver's license information, and Social Security numbers."

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