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Ask Help Desk: Cell carriers can use your web history for ads

Here is how you can opt out of their advertising programs that run on your personal data

Your browsing records and location data can all become fodder for targeted mobile advertising. (iStock/Washington Post illustration)
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When you signed up for your mobile plan, your carrier may have signed you up for an extra program that uses data including your Internet history to target you with ads.

I visited my own Verizon account settings and found that yep, I was enrolled in what the company calls “Custom Experience.” Not only do I have no memory of saying yes, I had no idea wireless carriers were in the business of peeking in on my activities and using that information to market to me. And my blissful ignorance works in favor of the company.

At Help Desk, we read privacy policies so you can save time. This week, Ron, a curious reader from Houston, inspired us to dive deeper into mobile carriers. I read the privacy policies from the three major wireless carriers, and my eyeballs are only bleeding a little. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have some less than great privacy practices hiding in plain sight.

Depending on the carrier, it can draw on your browsing history, location data, call logs and even app use to learn things about you and nudge you to spend more money on products from themselves or third-party companies. The good news is that you can opt out whenever you want, and we are going to show you how. Are there other privacy policies you want us to check? Send them our way at

What data do they want?

AT&T has a “Relevant Advertising” program in which customers are automatically opted in, and the company draws on information including your browsing history and videos you have watched to help show you targeted ads. If you sign up for “Enhanced Relevant Advertising,” your device location and call history are also fair game.

Verizon has a program that works similarly. Customers appear to be automatically opted into its “Custom Experience,” which means the company can use your browsing history and data from your apps to help target ads. The company says it “makes efforts” not to target you based on any adult sites you visit, health conditions and sexual orientation. Thanks, Verizon. If you said yes to “Custom Experience Plus” at any point, the company can also use your location data and call logs.

In comparison, T-Mobile seems relatively tame when it comes to this information. It says it does not use any browsing, precise location or call history data for its ad program, but it can use your “mobile app usage” and data on video viewing, according to its website.

What if I never opt out?

According to the companies, staying enrolled in these programs will improve your experience by showing you more relevant ads. If targeted ads spark joy and you are fine with your cell carrier using your information to make money, you can stop reading now and pour yourself a lemonade.

But these programs may let not just cell carriers but also their third-party partners benefit from your personal data. T-Mobile states clearly in its privacy policy that it can share inferences based on your data with third parties. AT&T also leaves room in its policy to share your information, but a spokesman told me the company is not doing it, though theoretically it can start any time.

Verizon says that if you choose to stay in “Custom Experience,” the company uses data including your Internet history to put you into interest categories like “sports lover.” A spokeswoman said the program does not involve any third-party targeted advertising, but she declined to tell me whether Verizon shares inferences with outside companies.

As always, it can be hard to know for sure where your information ends up. T-Mobile appears to be the only carrier of the three with a public list of its third-party partners.

Can I change my mind?

You can opt out of these ad programs any time. AT&T customers can opt out by signing into, navigating to the “Consent Dashboard” and scrolling to the section called “Control How We Use Your Data.” Opt out of “Relevant Advertising” and check that you are not signed up for “Enhanced Relevant Advertising.”

Verizon customers can opt out of the “Custom Experience” program by going to their privacy settings in the My Verizon app. While you are there, you should also check that you have not said yes to “Custom Experience Plus.”

T-Mobile says customers can opt out by opening the app, going to “Advertising and Analytics” then “Use My Data To Make Ads More Relevant To Me.” Turn the toggle off so that it turns gray. On the website, go to “My Account” then “Profile.” Click “Privacy and Notifications” then “Advertising and Analytics,” then “Use My Data To Make Ads More Relevant To Me.” Turn the toggle off.

Two of my Washington Post colleagues tried to opt out on T-Mobile accounts, and both got an error message saying it “looks like we got our wires crossed.” When they tried via the website, it froze or showed an error message. A T-Mobile spokeswoman said the company had not heard of any problems but was working to address the issue. Keep in mind that opting out does not necessarily stop carriers from collecting your data or marketing their own products to you.

Should I be worried?

I would recommend opting out of all these ad programs. It is tough to determine exactly what personal information these companies are sharing with whom, and it is shady for the companies to opt you in by default.

It will be tempting for any company with as much data access as a cell carrier to make some money off your information. What matters is that customers are given clear descriptions of how our data is monetized and that companies stop opting us in by default.