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Data Privacy: Your Phone Carrier Knows More Than You Think, How to Take Back Control

 Data Privacy: Your Phone Carrier Knows More Than You Think, How to Take Back Control


Data tracking in 2024 seems inevitable. Whether you’re using an iPhone or Android phone, your carrier is likely gathering all sorts of data about how, where and when you use your cellphone. 

This month T-Mobile quietly began rolling out a new tracking method called “profiling and automated decisions.” Spotted by Reddit users and The Mobile Report, the new option is enabled by default. While the company says it isn’t using information gleaned from such tracking today, it could be used later on for “future decisions that produce legal or similarly significant effects about you.”

Read more: Best Cellphone Plans of 2024

But the self-proclaimed “un-carrier” isn’t alone. All three major US wireless providers collect data, here’s what they gather and how you can turn it off. It is also worth noting that some of this you should want to keep on, particularly identity verification.

While we’re focusing on the three main wireless carriers that make up a bulk of the US wireless market, it is likely smaller providers and even home internet services are engaging in similar collections. Heading to an account’s profile or privacy page should help you figure out what is being collected and how you can adjust it. 

Read more: How to Adjust Your Streaming Stick or Smart TV’s Privacy Settings

AT&T

AT&T logo on a phone AT&T logo on a phone

James Martin/CNET

As we mentioned above, T-Mobile is not the only one collecting data about how you use their services. You can check your AT&T privacy settings by logging into your account and going to Profile followed by Privacy Choices.

The carrier has four main privacy toggles: 

  • Personalized Plus: This setting “uses data like web browsing and precise location for customization” including for offers and ads. This data includes your precise location, web browsing, viewership history, apps as well as data AT&T collects from advertisers like demographic information, ZIP code and age ranges. The carrier says this data “does not access or use the contents of your texts, emails or calls.” 
  • Personalized: This option “allows the use of your data for automated decision making” including using AI to generate more customized ads and marketing tailored and “relevant to your interests.” It’s on by default. 
  • Identity Verification: This “allows us to help non-AT&T companies perform identity verification and fraud prevention,” such as a bank to “help protect your accounts from fraud, verify your identity and make sure you authorize certain transactions.” AT&T says it does not let companies use this verification “for any other purpose than those services.” This is on by default. 
  • Share or sell my personal information: This lets AT&T “share limited information to create, deliver and measure advertisements for things you might like” including targeted ads. This is on by default. 

Of the four, you can easily toggle off all settings, though I would recommend keeping identity verification on for all lines on your account.

T-Mobile

T-mobile logo on a phone T-mobile logo on a phone

James Martin/CNET

T-Mobile’s privacy options are a bit more varied. To access the company’s Privacy Center, log into your T-Mobile account and then click My account in the upper right corner, followed by Profile. From there scroll all the way to the bottom and select privacy and notifications and privacy dashboard

From there you will see the following: 

  • Share data for public and scientific research: T-Mobile says that this option allows it to “help support research initiatives for the public good, such as pandemic response and the development of new technologies.” Created last year, the carrier says this program is in response to requests from “outside researchers or researching institutions.” T-Mobile says this data will be “de-identified as much as possible before being shared” and will not include personal information such as your name, though it can share location, demographic and usage data. It also says that data shared here won’t be given to law enforcement.    
  • Analytics and reporting: This takes data from your device, including app usage information such as how often it was opened and zip code and combines it with “self-declared data like age range (e.g., 25 to 34) and gender, to prepare aggregated business and marketing reports,” which T-Mobile can then use and share with other companies. The carrier says that these reports do not identify individuals. This is on by default. 
  • Advertising options: This is for personalized ads, with the carrier collecting details about apps you download and how long you’ve used them, combining it with other data it collects such as your location and demographic. As with similar options from other providers and sites, turning this off doesn’t stop you from seeing ads but the carrier says that you are “more likely to see ads about things you like” if you keep these options on. This is on by default. 
  • Product development: This lets T-Mobile use your personal data, including your precise location, phone numbers you call, apps and websites you use, as well as helping advertisers “make the ads they show you better.”
  • Profiling and automated decisions: This is T-Mobile’s seemingly latest privacy option that we mentioned above, and while the carrier says it isn’t doing anything with this today, it appears to be giving itself the option to do so going forward. On its site it describes this as taking personal data it collects about you “to evaluate, analyze, or predict certain personal aspects about your performance at work, economic situation, health, personal preferences, interests, reliability, behavior, location, or movements.” It is on by default. 
  • Do not sell or share my personal information: This allows you to tell T-Mobile not to sell or share the data it has about you with other companies. The company notes on its site that it still may share “some personal information with our service providers so you can, for example, receive products and services from us.” In an annoying extra step, the carrier notes on its website that you can limit what data third-party advertisers share with T-Mobile through its Magenta Advertising Platform, but to opt out of that you need to download a separate app.

Of these options, I would recommend turning all of them off. 

In addition to the dashboard, T-Mobile’s Privacy Center website details something called “phone privacy.” T-Mobile says that it uses information gathered from here to “identify offers for T-Mobile calling plans, protect against fraud, and respond to emergencies” but that under this policy it is not collecting “your name, address, phone number or the content of your phone calls.” It also says it’s not sharing this data with other companies so that it could “help them market their stuff.” 

Verizon 

Verizon wireless logo on a phone Verizon wireless logo on a phone

James Martin/CNET

Like T-Mobile, Verizon has a host of different options when it comes to privacy. This can be found by logging in, clicking on account then account overview. From there, select edit profile and settings and choose manage privacy settings

From there you will see the following: 

  • Customer Proprietary Network Info: This lets Verizon use the information it has about you to sell you other services beyond whatever you’re already paying for. This is on by default. 
  • Business and Marketing Insights: This takes information about location, web browsing, “app/feature use” as well as your demographic and then combines that with information Verizon gets from other companies to help Verizon create “insights” like if many people are often traveling to a particular place at a particular time. The carrier says this information is collected “in aggregate” so that it can help it and “others better understand consumer actions.” This is on by default. 
  • Custom Experience: This takes information about “websites you visit and apps you use” to “help us better understand your interests” such as if you like sports or gaming. Verizon says it does not share or sell this information with others. It’s on by default. 
  • Custom Experience Plus: This combines the information gathered from the CPNI and Custom Experience sections so that Verizon can “personalize” its marketing and recommendations for you as well as “develop plans, services and offers” that would be “more appealing to you.” This is an opt-in and the carrier says that it doesn’t sell this data to other companies for their own respective advertising, though opting in here will automatically enable the Business and Marketing Insights
  • Identity Verification: This shares “certain account, device and profile data” with third parties to help “verify your identity and help protect you against identity theft and account takeover.” This is on by default. 

There is also a Custom Experience tab that lets you reset your Custom Experience and Custom Experience Plus options, and doing so will have Verizon “stop using the web browsing and location data” that it previously collected as part of the program. 

Of all of Verizon’s options, I would recommend turning off all but Identity Verification. That should remain on. 

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