Commentary

Verizon's Data Use Crosses Boundary

Last week, I went to pay my Verizon Wireless bill and noticed a prominently-placed announcement about an “enhancement” to their Relevant Mobile Advertising program. I assumed it would be about capturing and selling data from my mobile device (location, app usage, etc.) to advertisers in order to improve targeting — something, frankly, I assumed was already happening, with or without my knowledge or consent.

But, in fact, the announcement contained a subtle but significant change, one that might not stand out to the average consumer: Verizon announced they are going to start providing advertising partners with data generated by anonymous IDs from their corporate website — which are, of course, linked to users’ mobile information. This change alone sounds relatively innocuous, but what it means is that marketers are one step closer to solving the challenge of cross-device measurement.

At an ARF Young Professionals event around mobile a few weeks ago, an audience member asked why share of ad spend going to mobile hasn’t kept up with the pace of growth in mobile usage overall. My fellow panelist, Lauren Epshteyn of Google, explained that one of the big challenges in mobile advertising is measuring ROI. It’s hard to judge the impact of mobile ads on the bottom line, because we can’t always tie people’s mobile phones to other activity (e.g., their desktop browser where they ultimately make the purchase). Google’s own Universal Analytics attempts to do this for their ad partners, but only if companies can leverage an existing user account system.

Enter Verizon. Using their own user IDs, this new capability “may allow an advertiser to use information they have about your visits to websites from your desktop computer to deliver marketing messages to mobile devices on our network.” Which means advertisers can push ads that are informed by big data generated on your desktop to your mobile browser and apps. And, presumably, vice versa. Cross-device problem solved? 

In the larger context of data privacy and marketing, Verizon’s use of consumer data has now crossed an important boundary. As Robert Mitchell pointed out on Computerworld, desktop ads are one thing: services like Google, Facebook, and YouTube are free, and consumers tolerate ads — and, yes, data collection — as part of the deal.  But users already pay Verizon $80 or $100 a month for mobile service — yet Verizon is making money by selling personal data, with no benefit to the consumer except (potentially) more relevant ads. 

Mobile providers are in a unique position to crack the cross-device nut because they own the essential information that allows one user to be identified across devices. It should be assumed that other service providers will follow suit; and Google can do much the same by leveraging their Android platform.

Several clicks on the Verizon website will take you to their opt-out page where you can decline to participate in the new “enhanced” program, as well as other schemes. I can’t help but wonder how many consumers will take that extra effort to keep Verizon away from their data.

Recent Communispace research shows that, while tolerance for tracking may be increasing, there are still certain behaviors that cross the line. Are mobile devices — which feel like extensions of ourselves in a way personal computers never have — the final frontier of digital privacy? Or, have most of us already accepted a world in which constant surveillance is simply the norm?

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