Yep, the Verizon that sold subscribers’ location data
Verizon has slung out a new, privacy-focused search engine in an effort to win over customers who prefer not to have their browsing habits tracked by ad-slingers and the like.
For years, the company has been trying to diversify its market from selling hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of wireless and wired comms, towards other growing sectors – flinging cash at new tech firms, IT services and media outlets.
It has also been trying to shift its image from a stodgy, boring broadband provider to a hip, kombucha-drinking, new media giant. Three years ago, it bought Yahoo! and two years before that, AOL, in a ham-fisted effort to woo millennials away from Facebook and Google – which it later rebranded as Oath and then the Verizon Media Group.
The parent firm itself was given a bash with the rebranding stick in 2015.
So far the makeover has not gone well. One effort, a tech news site called Sugarstring, imploded after one of its writers revealed that he’d been banned from reporting on two subjects close to Verizon’s heart: net neutrality and surveillance. The company denied this.
The firm’s latest new media mishap, go90, touted as a video-streaming service for millennials to rival YouTube, was also dead on arrival. And let’s not get started on Verizon’s’s mobile wallet app, which just so happened to share its name with a violent Islamist militant group.
Verizon promises to stop selling its subscribers’ location data… for now
Verizon said the new search engine, named One Search, won’t share user’s personal information with advertisers, or store their search history. A new “Advanced Privacy Mode” will encrypt search terms and URLs against third-party tracking.
The decision to make a privacy-focused search engine is apparently in line with Verizon’s “commitment to trust and transparency” and the way the company has led the industry “over the last couple decades.”
The move might strike some readers as rich coming from a business that has a long history of consumer surveillance. In 2016, Verizon was fined $1.4m by the FCC for using stalker supercookies to clandestinely track its users across the internet. Two years earlier, it settled for $7.4m for failing to tell customers that it was using their personal information for marketing purposes.
Verizon was also called out for harvesting users’ location data and selling it on to pretty much anyone who would pay for it, including other actors who then sold it to the police. Verizon later promised to end the programme, but not immediately, arguing that doing so would “disrupt beneficial services being provided using customer location data, such as the fraud prevention and call routing services”.
That’s not to mention Verizon’s cozy relationship with the NSA. The company didn’t make a peep when the government agency began indiscriminately collecting the data of millions of customers, regardless of whether they were suspected of any wrongdoing, albeit in compliance of a top secret court order. To be fair, it would not have been alone among tech firms as a recipient of such an order.
Verizon has also lobbied Congress to quash privacy rules at the FCC that would have prevented ISPs from selling users’ browser history. It also joined forces with AT&T to lobby against a net neutrality bill, and threatened to sue states and cities that tried to enforce it independently.
It’s no surprise, then, that many analysts are skeptical. Brian Honan, a special advisor on internet security to Europol, told The Reg: “Given their history, Verizon have an uphill battle in gaining the trust of customers around privacy. In particular for non-US-based customers who worry companies like Verizon will prioritise US government requests over their individual rights.”
The move highlights that companies are beginning to take privacy seriously. Several tech firms – such as Mozilla, Microsoft and Apple – have shifted towards selling privacy as a service in recent years.
Honan added: “The introduction of GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act have made consumers more aware of their privacy rights and they are looking to deal with companies who respect those rights.” ®
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