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The Hidden Cost of Verizon’s ‘Free’ Rewards Program: Your Data

The Hidden Cost of Verizon’s ‘Free’ Rewards Program: Your Data
August 10, 2017

With the announcement of Verizon Up, a new wireless rewards program that provides users with customer incentives, first-dibs opportunities on things like VIP tickets and other exclusive deals, we thought it was time to review how reward marketing plans work.

First, the good news: Verizon Up is free!

Like their intrusive cousin the loyalty program, reward-based marketing schemes usually require no additional fees. In essence, Verizon Up is a camouflaged version of what author Seth Godin calls “permission marketing.”

Now the bad news: Nothing is free. Verizon is making you pay with your personal information instead of money. But make no mistake: They’re going to profit more than you will from the arrangement. (Note: Verizon did not return our request for comment.)

Never were the words of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel more prescient: “To be free is nothing, to become free is everything.” Translation: In the world of big data, there’s no such thing as “free.” If a company offers you something for your data, you’re the product. They are monetizing your information.

The eligibility requirements on Verizon’s website make this clear. Opting in enables Verizon to personalize marketing sent your way by them, and by other companies, using your data.

What Data?

These days “your data” is pretty much anything marketing companies can get their hands on. If you belong to a gym, it may be selling that fact to a third party, and with it possibly more data about how often you go and anything you bought there to enhance your workout.

If you use a mobile phone, your data could include everywhere you have gone and most likely anything discussed via text. Whether or not you use the popular Waze app, there’s data on how fast you drive, which in the wrong (or right) hands could affect the rates you pay for car insurance — never mind the possibility that law enforcement could one day claim jurisdiction in the realm of cyberspace-clocked speeding tickets.

When it comes to your data, the goal is to create a granular portrait of you — your interests, likes, dislikes, passionate yearnings — all of it prepared and arranged for resale to companies and organizations hoping to match products and services with various aspects of your personality.

How Specific Does This Get?

The kind of information the big data companies have — what constitutes “your data” — depends on your privacy hygiene. The less you share, the fewer times you opt in, the more privacy you will enjoy.

Companies like to incentivize the sharing of personal data. Sometimes it’s by creating something fun, like a toy or gaming experience. The lure of social media is hard to resist but every like and comment becomes part of your sellable data.

If you’ve ever signed up for a loyalty program, everything you’ve purchased will be included under the heading of “your data,” providing a very specific window into your life, not just simple stuff like your gender and age — they already know that — but your health and habits based on what you buy. And of course, your credit card companiesknow more about you than almost anyone else — including, probably, you. (You can get an idea of what they see about you with a free credit report snapshot on Credit.com.)

Nothing to See Here

Remember the story about the emperor’s new clothes? Basically, he didn’t have any. That’s the deal here. And while Verizon is not alone in perpetrating a consumer data grab, their recent announcement makes them today’s blue-plate special.

As is the way with this kind of offer, Verizon Up will provide users with some perks, but for what? And is it a fair swap?

To be clear, whenever the right to use your data, without limitation, is the ask, saying “yes” is never going to be the answer I recommend. It doesn’t matter what you’re getting for it. In this case, Verizon is asking to monetize the data on products and services that you use (and pay for) as well as far more personal stuff, “including location, web browsing and app usage.”

Does this mean your iPhone Safari browser can be set to “Private” and it doesn’t matter? Internet service providers can see any traffic that doesn’t move via virtual private network. So, is everywhere you go online still visible, able to be sold to a third party no matter how private?

It doesn’t matter. Get in the habit of saying no.

When it comes to privacy, you need to be your own advocate. As Toni Morrison said, “Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you.”

Adam Levin is chairman and founder of CyberScout and co-founder of Credit.com, where this article originally appeared.

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