Guest Post by James Grieco
With nearly every waking minute of our lives linked in to the internet and information networks controlled by oligarchic companies, many of us often fail to realize just how at the mercy of big business we actually are. It seems that everyone from governments to companies big and small want your data to track your location and sell you targeted products.
Big telecommunications companies such as Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T can control the flow of their customers’ information online and on phones and are so powerful that they largely operate however they want. In the past, when revelations about selling and using private data have come to light, the balance between public anger and the government’s response has usually been disproportionately skewed. When telecom companies are caught taking advantage of their powers, they are quick to issue public apologies and promise to do better in the future.
With the rise of social media giants, many of the most powerful companies in the country — and the world — have free rein both to control your internet and telephone communications and profit from them. As the old adage goes, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
While that’s certainly true of social media, telecom companies have become so influential in American politics that they get to charge customers and also profit off of them additionally by selling data; the telecommunications industry annually appears on lists of the biggest lobbying wings in the country. Facebook gave your data away in its quest for power, but Verizon and others sold it simply because they could.
How can they do that?
If you read the complete service agreement cell phone providers present to customers, you’ll find many force your consent to let them use information about things like your location, app usage, and web searches.
The public has become more aware of this over the years, but the outcry has never seemed to compel action beyond a general sense of unease. Due to the lack of a true and momentous push to hold these companies accountable for their behavior, most are still selling your data despite claims they’ve stopped.
The truth may be that telecom companies are simply getting smarter about how they can continue to collect and sell customers’ data without public backlash.
In 2015, the public got wind of something called “supercookies,” tracking cookies that are essentially impossible to remove, thus always broadcasting your internet searches to advertisers. The FCC ended up fining Verizon $1.35 million over supercookies and made them explicitly ask customers for consent before enabling the tracking mechanism.
Today, Verizon still uses supercookies, and considering how few people have heard of that term, it appears that asking for consent to use them deep within the typically monolithic user agreements has caught customers unaware.
Despite multiple fines the government has levied against these companies over the years, the emphasis of the punishments is all too frequently about past behavior, and not intended to influence future action — if it were, the fines would be much larger than they have been.
The current FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, has routinely acted in the interests of these telecom giants. Pai, a former Verizon employee, has an extended history with multiple telecommunications companies, yet has repeatedly refused to recuse himself from conflicts of interest.
The internet has succumbed to big business. Too many people are apathetic about their privacy being stripped in the name of other interests, and telecommunications giants are too powerful to fight. Most areas only have one viable internet provider and only a handful of phone companies dominate the industry. Changing the telecom industry’s practices will be an impossible task on an individual level.
Here is what you have to realize about data collection among phone companies: it is real, it is widespread, and despite what the companies themselves have said as damage control, there is no end in sight to this practice.
Use VPNs and encrypted apps
What can you do about it for yourself? Stay away from clearly compromised apps and services: i.e. default texting apps like iMessage and Social Media messengers. If you have Android, consider installing Tor browser (which lets you browse the internet anonymously) or at least a VPN to cloak your physical location.
For messaging and calling on your personal phone, here is a list of encrypted apps that can help you stay safe and keep your information out of corporate hands.
Use VoIP for business needs
If you use your phone for business purposes, consider using a VoIP provider. VoIP, or voice over internet protocol, is software used to modernize telephone usage — particularly business telephone usage.
VoIP uses your internet connection to make and receive phone calls, which makes it easy to use a VPN and keep your business calls private. The VoIP industry is also full of options, as it lacks true powerhouses akin to Verizon or AT&T, a fact which keeps the balance of power between provider and customer in check.
Some VoIP providers, like MightyCall, have a multitude of security measures in place to protect customer data as well. Beyond not selling your business data, the cloud storage VoIP utilizes has multiple layers to protect against security breaches and customer information is never stored permanently.
Do not hesitate to try to protect yourself from the harmful practices of the telecom industry and do not be afraid to use your devices furtively; VPNs and encrypted apps are not just for criminals and doing shady things — they are for everyone, as the tools to keep the playing field fair in this day and age.
James Grieco is the content marketing manager at MightyCall. When he isn't trying to explain VoIP and its benefits to people, he watches sports or binges detective novels. You can follow him for random and irregular thoughts: @LackingAFilter.
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