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.

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Filed Under: ads, anonymized data, behavioral tracking, privacy, tracking
Companies: t-mobile


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  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 11 Mar 2021 @ 5:50am

    "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."

    So... you don't directly tie data with the user's information, but still provide something that's uniquely identifiable and can be tied with the user if someone works out how to connect the two, and which you can use internally to completely track them? Hmmm...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Vaccination Papers, Please, 11 Mar 2021 @ 6:41am

    FLOC this! "Google shift[s] away from individual ... tracking"

    Google states NOTHING that even implies won't still track individuals just as maniacally, in every way they can conceive and to the limits of storage, collating search and other online activity with financial reports and phone location. To even suggest otherwise is just flat lying.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Vaccination Papers, Please, 11 Mar 2021 @ 6:45am

      Re: FLOC this! "Google shift[s] away from individual ... tr

      It's not reducing the excess of direct data nor storing less: third-party cookies are simply redundant. ALL it's doing is formatting some of its for-sale output differently.

      BUT here at Techdirt, GOOGLE is always cast so favorably as can, even if requires lying, so the meh announcement of ignoring third-party cookies is fantasized into a huge but phony positive.

      And of course that lie of the GOOD GOOGLE is used for contrast when attacking T-Mobile for now doing more tracking, the very basis of Google! -- And GOOGLE tracks persons without consent: it tracks everyone can.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 11 Mar 2021 @ 6:54am

        Re: Re: FLOC this! "Google shift[s] away from individual ..

        "Techdirt supports Google tracking" states man obsessively spamming Techdirt in order to get his posts seen and tracked, and thus drive higher traffic to Techdirt.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        crade (profile), 11 Mar 2021 @ 7:27am

        Re: Re: FLOC this! "Google shift[s] away from individual ..

        I don't get it.. So you don't like tracking, techdirt posts an article that agrees fully with your view that tracking is happening and is bad, and you have a beef because it isn't about google?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2021 @ 3:46pm

          Re: Re: Re: FLOC this! "Google shift[s] away from individua

          Blue seems to hold three positions (if they can even be called that):

          1. Google bad.
          2. Techdirt bad.
          3. Copyright good.

          Everything else, including logic, reading comprehension, self-reflection, and the ability to pass a Turing test, seems to be missing entirely.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Vaccination Papers, Please, 11 Mar 2021 @ 6:48am

      Re: FLOC this! "Google shift[s] away from individual ... tr

      And NEVER forget -- though Techdirt has never actually addressed it -- that Snowden said GOOGLE gives NSA "direct access".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2021 @ 7:09am

        Re: Re: FLOC this! "Google shift[s] away from individual ..

        You obviously do not read this site beyond the headlines, or know how to do a simple search with the provided search box. Here is a search that refutes your proposition.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2021 @ 10:39am

        Re: Re: FLOC this!

        that Snowden said GOOGLE gives NSA "direct access".

        yeeeaaahhhh... I'm going to have to ask you for a citation on that. Pretty much the rest of the world (and the Snowden documents described by reputable sites) say the NSA hacked Google's data lines being the closest that Google gets to giving the NSA anything close to direct access.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 12 Mar 2021 @ 2:07am

    'Harmless' is it? Lead by example then

    Anyone, person or company that tries to argue that 'anonymized' data isn't a big deal should be presented with a put up or shut up ultimatum: either they provide their own anonymized data(in the case of a company the data for all the top execs) for the public to comb through, or they admit that their argument is garbage because 'anonymized' data isn't nearly as anonymous as they'd want you to think.

    That said I'm sure this'll turn out to be no big deal, I mean with the tech companies being raked over the coals for privacy concerns I've no doubt that politicians in DC will be tripping over themselves to crack down on behavior by the telecom industry that's even more intrusive the second they learn about it, so I'm sure this idea will be shot down in short order.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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