For more than a year now, one of the biggest stories in tech has been Apple's push to require developers to request permission from users before tracking their activity. The change has serious implications for advertisers that use that data to "personalize" ads based on what they think is relevant.
Facebook has been one of the loudest voices against Apple's initiative, known as App Tracking Transparency, even taking out full-page ads in major newspapers claiming that Apple is hurting small businesses and threatening the "free and open internet."
The other side of the story is the effort developers and digital advertisers have put into trying to get users to allow their data to be collected. Apple allows apps to request permission to track a user's activity and apps are allowed to collect first-party data, or data about how a user interacts with a developer's own sites.
For example, Facebook can still track you across Instagram, since both are owned by Meta, which is the name the company gave itself because it realized that Facebook might be a bit of a tarnished brand. But, if it wants to track what you do online, it has to ask.
Verizon, on the other hand, doesn't, and there's nothing Apple can do about it. That's because Verizon doesn't need an app to track you. It literally built the towers and servers and networks that carry data to and from your iPhone. In theory, at least, it knows everything you do on your device--at least, anything that requires cellular data.
That's true whether you opt in to other forms of tracking on your device or ask apps not to track you. The same goes for your location. While Apple requires apps to ask for that information, your mobile carrier knows your location regardless of your choice. In this case, it's worse. Not only did Verizon not ask, it just turned it on by default for all of its customers.
My family is a Verizon customer, and--to be fair--I did get a text message that said:
VS Msg: Introducing Verizon Custom Experience. VZ content & offers are more relevant using web browsing & app usage info. For info or to opt-out: go.vzw.com/ce
That's great, except that's the kind of message you usually ignore, and you definitely don't click on the link. Everything about the text message looks like it's probably a scam. It comes from a random number and if you actually read the message, you'd certainly not click on the link out of fear for what might happen. By the way, as a rule, you should never click on links in text messages, unless it's from someone you know.
Which, I think is the point. Verizon can claim to have let people know what's happening and to have given them a link to opt out, knowing that the message is just sketchy enough that almost no one will. Well, in service of you, the reader, I did. The whole "using web browsing & app usage info" was enough for me to see a bad thing coming and know that I need to dig further.
Fortunately, you can turn it off, though you'll have to use either the Verizon app or log in to your account online, if you're using a web browser on your desktop computer. Then select Account > Account Settings > Privacy Settings. From there, you'll see the drop-down for "Custom Experience." Be sure to select "Don't Use" for every line on your account.
From the Verizon app on iOS, select the settings gear at the top, and then select Manage Privacy Settings. There, you'll see that Custom Experience is opted in, but you can also turn off all of Verizon's marketing settings.
The real problem, however, is that Verizon never asked users if it could track them. It just opted every single user in by default. Never mind the privacy implications (which are real, by the way). That's just terrible business.
Clearly, Verizon is looking to become a much bigger player in the digital ad space, especially as advertisers are looking away from Facebook's massive ad platform in response to Apple's changes. I reached out to Verizon and asked why it didn't make the feature "opt-in," but did not immediately receive a response to my inquiry.
I think we know why it did, and that's the problem. Opting everyone in is good for business. It's far better than asking users if you can track them since almost all of them will say no. Instead, it's much more lucrative to enable a feature and then bury the setting deep in an app.
I think we can all agree, however, this is a terrible way to treat your customers. In general, you should never opt people into something because you know that if you ask they'll say no. That should be a huge clue that you have no business opting them in without explicit consent.
That's especially true when it comes to collecting data. When you do that, you betray your customers' trust, which is the one thing no business can afford to do. Once you lose trust, there's no amount of targeted advertising revenue that repairs that.