We have discussed many times how keen websites and marketing analytics firms are to track you as you surf the internet, so they can learn what you like from your browsing habits and the subjects that interest you. We generally consider this kind behaviour heinous if all too common, and have written a number of articles showing how to avoid it (as much as possible).
We were therefore at a bit of a loss at what to make of Verizon’s new Smart Rewards scheme. Much like supermarket reward schemes, participants can earn points for every dollar spent using a Verizon service, for using paperless billing, or setting up Auto Pay with their checking accounts (and more). Points can be redeemed for savings on gift cards, deals on local shopping and dining, and discounts on travel and hotels etc.
The catch, however, is that to take advantage of the scheme, customers must sign up to Verizon Select,
‘Participation in Smart Rewards may require enrollment in Verizon Selects, which personalizes marketing customers may receive from Verizon and other companies by using information about customers’ use of Verizon products and services including location, web browsing and app usage data.’
In other words, Smart Rewards participants agree to allow themselves to be tracked for marketing purposes in return for free stuff.
Now we admire the fact that Verizon is asking permission (sort of) before tracking its customers, and is compensating customers somewhat for the invasion of privacy this represents, but our initial unease at scheme grew into outright alarm the more we investigated!
For a start, the requirement to sign up to Verizon Select and the tracking implications this involves (see here for a video by Verizon marketing this) is heavily downplayed on the website, and is buried under a load of ‘Look – FREE STUFF!’ advertising, making the ‘opt-in’ aspect of the scheme a much greyer area than need be.
If you want to understand just how far reaching the Verizon Select program is, Verizon spokeswoman Debi Lewis gave some eye-opening examples to CNN News.
Even more worrying however, is that Verizon has filed for a patent on ‘Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated with an Ambient Action of a user’ – in other words Verizon will target mobile users for advertising based on not just on what they get up to on their device, but on what happening in their physical local environment! Creepy or what?
In order to do this, the patent also outlines how Verizon will use ‘sensor devices, such as an image sensor device (e.g., a camera device, such as a red green blue (“RGB”) camera or any other suitable camera device), a depth sensor device (e.g., an infrared laser projector combined with a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (“CMOS”) sensor or any other suitable depth sensor and/or 3D imaging device), an audio sensor device (e.g., a microphone device such as a multi-array microphone or any other suitable microphone device), a thermal sensor device (e.g., a thermographic camera device or any other suitable thermal sensor device),’ to monitor customers’ ambient environment.
Such technology will first be introduced into Verizon set-top boxes, and will be able to determine if users are ‘eating, exercising, laughing, reading, sleeping, talking, singing, humming, cleaning, and playing a musical instrument,’ and if interaction with another person is involved, whether that comprises of ‘cuddling, fighting, participating in a game or sporting event, and talking.’
Whoa! Verizon really want to know what you get up in the bedroom! One example given in the patent is,
‘If detection facility… detects that a couple is arguing/fighting with each other, advertising facility may select an advertisement associated marriage/relationship counseling.’
‘Server device may utilize one or more terms associated with cuddling (e.g., the terms “romance,” “love,” “cuddle,” “snuggle,” etc.) to search for and/or select a commercial associated with cuddling (e.g., a commercial for a romantic getaway vacation, a commercial for a contraceptive, a commercial for flowers, a commercial including a trailer for an upcoming romantic comedy movie, etc.)’
Our advice is to run away from Verizon Smart Rewards and Verizon Selects (and Verizon altogether!) as far and as hard as possible, and not to be lured into giving up intimate details of your private life in return for a few free gee-gaws!