The Art of (Phone) War: How Consumers Can Fight Back When Phone Companies Sell Their Personal Data

A now-former U.S. Secretary of Defense once famously quipped: “There are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” He’s talking about the shifting nature of intelligence and how it shapes our decision-making.

One thing that we know for sure: Phone companies are using and selling your personal data in ways that consumers might not like. What’s often unknown to consumers? How to fight back and win.

Advocacy groups and consumer watchdogs have waged campaigns against some of the major phone companies. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has even levied fines against companies like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon ranging from $12 million up to $91 million.

Despite the bad press and the regulatory fines, the behavior persists because of how tremendously lucrative it is for those corporations. In other words, such opposition is just the price of doing business for these companies.

While it may seem like an uphill battle, there’s a significant amount of leverage that consumers can use to fight back. From consumers knowing their rights and adjusting their individual data settings to arbitration and other legal actions, there are ways to hold these companies—who have access to some of our most private communications—accountable to their own customers.

The Best Defense Is Going On Offense With Consumer Education

Getting educated about how phone companies are selling off personal data is key. So what’s really happening here?

Companies are selling access to your real-time location and consumer phone numbers. This information gets sold and shipped off to corporations like Microbilt, a credit reporting company. Then, the information gets sold again further down the line to more companies. Even law enforcement gets in the game when it comes to purchasing consumer data.

It’s clear that the answer to the question “Well, what do they get out of it?” is money.

To be fair, the situation isn’t entirely one-sided. Consumers benefit when location monitoring is shared with emergency call centers when they dial “911.” Ever made sure a friend got home safe using apps like Find My Friends? That’s your location data at work.

The challenge here is that there are real limits to those benefits for consumers and massive financial and business advantages for the corporations selling and leveraging your personal data.

Some legislators have proposed bills to tax companies that use consumer data and allow for those funds to flow to consumers. It’s been estimated that a small five percent tax would generate upwards of $100 billion per year which would mean a nice fat check of around $400 for each U.S. citizen yearly. While few Americans would say no to that money, it doesn’t resolve the security issues:

  • Reduced quality of life from spam calls
  • Private information available on the web due to third-party companies getting hacked
  • Law enforcement violated civil rights by using location tracking without a warrant

While the conveniences are nice, the downsides are huge. Here’s how consumers can protect themselves and insist on security for their personal data.

Know your rights and use them

Read up on those agreements you probably breeze past when you purchase a new phone or electronic device. Know the laws and regulations out there meant to protect consumers. Check out what other consumers are doing in terms of activism around protecting personal data. Share articles like this one with other concerned consumers.

The more the FCC and legislators hear from citizens pushing for greater privacy protections, the more likely they are to be enacted (arguably). The phone companies have lots of dollars to throw at the issue, but citizens’ voices still matter.

Check those data settings

One immediate step you can take right now: Adjust your privacy settings. Find your way to “Location Services” in your phone and take a look at how various apps are using your location. You’ll want to adjust each app to the level of privacy at which you feel comfortable. For example, you probably don’t need every app set to “Always.”

While this doesn’t completely stop phone companies from gathering and selling your personal data, it’s a start.

Use arbitration

Lots of phone companies have clauses in their agreements with consumers that (often unfairly) push consumer grievances into arbitration. The thinking here is that consumers won’t stick with the arbitration cases and that companies are more likely to win in this context, but here’s where you can prove phone companies wrong and win.

Arbitration is just a method for resolving disputes outside of court. When consumers win in arbitration, they can get compensated for data sold without their knowledge or approval.

The good news is that the arbitration process is manageable. You can easily and quickly join up with others or sue on your own. There are also services that will walk you through the arbitration process step-by-step.

With the right mix of consumer education, a few technical changes with how you use devices, and a bit of guided legal support to push forward arbitration cases—consumers have a number of tools at their disposal to fight back against the sale of their personal data and win.

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