Congressional Privacy Hawks Target Verizon Ad Program

The latest target of the co-chairs of the House Privacy Caucus is Verizon. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey and Texas Republican Joe Barton have been especially vocal lately regarding privacy issues, and yesterday the legislators sent inquiries to Verizon and Verizon Wireless regarding the companies’ plans to start a geotargeted ad program.

Verizon recently notified customers that it would “participate in a program that will improve the ability of advertisers to reach our Verizon Online customers based on your physical address. The goal is to provide online ads that may be more relevant to you. The program uses your address to determine whether you reside in a local area an advertiser is trying to reach.” The service update was posted by The Consumerist yesterday.

“As a longstanding advocate for clear, easy to use opt-in policies for the sharing and disclosure of consumers’ personal information, I am concerned that Verizon’s new plan will put third parties in control of the sensitive information of its customers – especially their location,” stated Markey in a press release. “Verizon has in effect chosen ‘Can You Track Me Now?’ as their new marketing tagline.”

According to Verizon’s description of the system, it mimics the type of geographic ad targeting done online for years by site publishers and other firms that collect contact information such as physical address. Physical addresses are also available through registrations for mobile services and applications, and ads can be targeted against that data as well as through location-based data showing the current location of a mobile device.

Of main concern to the privacy hawks, however, is not the type of targeting but the data disclosure to third parties required to enable it. In the letter sent to the Presidents and CEOs of Verizon and Verizon Wireless yesterday, Barton and Markey stated, “Specifically, disclosure to third parties of customers’ location information and the websites they visit – even on an aggregate basis – merits further clarification from Verizon and Verizon Wireless.”

Mobile data privacy has been a pet issue for Markey and Barton, particularly as it relates to kids and teens. Their Do Not Track Kids bill introduced earlier this year deals with location data, proposing that site and app operators cannot collect such data from children without parental consent.

In the letter, the Congressman wondered what the value of the new service would be to consumers and Verizon. “In the service update, Verizon indicates that consumers ‘may’ see ads of greater relevance. Please explain why Verizon and Verizon Wireless decided to create this program if it is possible the consumer will not benefit from it. How will Verizon benefit from this new program?”

They also asked if the firms would sell, rent, or make customer information available to third parties, and why the companies chose to require customers to opt out rather than giving them the ability to opt in to the ad targeting program.

While similar privacy-related inquiries sent to companies such as Facebook and Groupon often give a deadline for responses, the Verizon letter did not.

Last month, the two lawmakers asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook in relation to reports that the company gathers data through like buttons on other sites even when users are logged out of the social site. They also asked Groupon about changes to its privacy policy in July.

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