Businesses like Verizon know more about you than you think

A pedestrian talks on a cellular phone as she walks by a Verizon Wireless store on April 19, 2012 in New York City.

The Business Records Act is the particular section of the Patriot Act that gives the government permission to go after large swaths of data, like the Verizon customer call logs pulled by the National Security Agency. While the government sifts through phone data to monitor would-be terrorists, we wanted to explore that "business" part of the Patriot Act. 

Phone companies like Verizon do their own analysis of customer logs. "This is data that [Verizon] is using for some tracking purposes. But it's also data they use for billing ... to understand patterns, it's data that they use to identify new locations for towers," said Fatemeh Khatibloo, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

There's plenty of money to be made slicing and dicing that data. "If the government that gives them rights to start monetizing this data, there's plenty of people who'd be really interested in where you shop, how you're shopping," Khatibloo said, like "which store you go to after Best Buy."

Among the metadata that wireless carriers collect: your movements via GPS. Privacy laws bar companies from making money from those insights, even as the NSA's secretly pulls records. And, Khatibloo said, "It's really unlikely that Verizon is the only carrier that has the order."

Meanwhile, tech giants have their own troves of data which could also be swept up by federal authorities. Just think what Amazon and Google know about their customers. Not to mention social media companies.  "Companies like Twitter, these guys are collecting all kinds of networking data, which is ultimately what the government is looking for," said Khatibloo. 

Even so, Khatibloo insists that consumers should still expect some amount of privacy - and that as we get more sophisticated about our own data, companies will respond. "I think we might be in the Dark Ages of privacy, but I do think there's a Renaissance to come," Khatibloo says. "Consumers, as they become more aware of ... how their data is being used, I think we will actually get to be a little bit smarter."

Even so, the government's case for the national security benefit of gathering so much data, can be compelling. "The Boston Marathon bombing was a tipping point for surveillance," Khatibloo said. "The government use closed circuit TV to find the bombers. And people like that. People were glad those guys were caught."

"We'll probably look more to the government to fix this than we're going to hold Verizon's feet to the fire. And I think that's a shame," says Khatibloo. "Because we really could get Verizon and other companies ... to be more consumer advocacy oriented if we held their feet to the fire."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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