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T-Mobile Is Hawking Your App and Web History to Advertisers

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Image for article titled Of Course T-Mobile Is Being Shady With Your App Downloads and Browsing History

Photo: Grand Warszawski (Shutterstock)

In yet another example of T-Mobile being The Worst with its customer’s data, the company announced a new money-making scheme this week: selling its customers’ app download data and web browsing history to advertisers.

The package of data is part of the company’s new “App Insights” adtech product that was in beta for the last year but formally rolled out this week. According to AdExchanger, which first reported news of the announcement from the Cannes Festival, the new product will let marketers track and target T-Mobile customers based on the apps they’ve downloaded and their “engagement patterns”—meaning when or how often they open and close particular apps.

These same “patterns” also include the types of domains a person visits in their mobile web browser. All of this data gets bundled up into what the company calls “personas,” which let marketers microtarget someone by their phone habits. One example that T-Mobile’s head of ad products, Jess Zhu, told AdExchanger was that a person with a human resources app on their phone who also tends to visit, say, Expedia’s website, might be grouped as a “business traveler.” The company noted that there’s no personas built on “gender or cultural identity”—so a person who visits a lot of, say, Christian websites and has a Bible app or two installed won’t be profiled based on that.

App Insights transforms this data into actionable insights. Marketers can see app usage, growth, and retention and compare activity between brands and product categories,” a T-Mobile statement read.

T-Mobile (and Sprint, by association) certainly aren’t the only carriers pawning off this data; as Ars Technica first noted last year, Verizon overrode customer’s privacy preferences to sell off their browsing and app-usage data. And while AT&T had initially planned to sell access to similar data nearly a decade ago, the company currently claims that it exclusively uses “non-sensitive information” like your age range and zip code to serve up targeted ads.

But T-Mobile also won’t stop marketers from taking things into their own hands. One ad agency exec that spoke with AdExchanger said that one of the “most exciting” things about this new ad product is the ability to microtarget members of the LGBTQ community. Sure, that’s not one of the prebuilt personas offered in the App Insights product, “but a marketer could target phones with Grindr installed, for example, or use those audiences for analytics,” the original interview notes.

There is, of course, the question of how any of this is legal—especially considering how multiple mobile carriers (including T-Mobile!) suffered fines in 2020 for pawning off customer’s data to brokers without their consent, years after they’d promised not to.

The answer is that they had promised not to sell location data. Web browsing data is still on the table. And while T-Mobile doesn’t integrate people’s locations into its new data product, AdExchanger notes that the company wouldn’t stop an agency from, say, working with another adtech vendor to get that intel themselves. And as we’ve seen in the past, there’s definitely vendors who are willing to give up that location data for the right price.

There is a bright spot, though; at least for now, T-Mobile isn’t letting marketers microtarget iOS users. Apple’s recent privacy updates have made data collection too much of a headache—and a liability—for some of the biggest players in the data game, and that apparently includes mobile carriers. So no Apple data is getting in (or out) of the App Insights product, T-Mobile says. Then again, this is the same company that opted its customers into a targeted ad program that none of them consented to.

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