Whamming & Digital Stalking: There Is No Privacy Online Today.

Congress and the FCC are hell bent at removing basic internet privacy rules. These recent headlines say it all:

What should be happening? The government should have been investigating Whamming and Digital Stalking.

PLAY THE VIDEO: Just watch this short video of what happens when you visit the majority of web sites in the US, such as Yahoo or AOL.

NOTE: We will be releasing a new report in the next two weeks. We put out this data to start the conversation.

When you visit a web page, there is a swarm of hundreds of companies that are somehow attached to the web page, or your browser, or both, and their goal is to track you, spy on you, and collect information about you, such as where you go online or what you buy. Then, companies sell/rent this collected information about you.

This video shows that just 1.3 minutes, a visit to the Yahoo home page had 1,141 different ‘requests’. And the kicker is—it used up 33MB. In the excerpt above, the “URL” column on the left supplies the locations of the company or service throwing something onto the web site (or caught with our diagnostic tool), followed by the “application”, which details whether what is downloaded was an image or more likely some software “javascript” used by some ad-tech. And, on the right you can see the size of each file, in KB. Some of these are very small, under 1K, and appear to be ‘web bugs’, while others can be quite large, a few hundred KB or more, especially when the page starts playing an advertisement video.

Note: 1000KB=1MB; 1000MB=1GB

In short, when you go online today it is as if an uninvited mob has joined you on a conference call – with hundreds of uninvited companies, most of whom you never heard of, and you have no idea of their intentions.

FCC Chairman Pai recently claimed that the Federal Trade Commission, (FTC), which monitors some of this, has “proven to be an effective cop on the beat for safeguarding digital privacy.”

You got to be kidding me. The FCC, Congress or the FTC have never examined these issues in depth. The video clearly shows that there is no privacy today and the government has been negligent in protecting the public.

The Yahoo home page is more typical than not. Here is a video of the AOL home page racking up 40MB in about 22 seconds. On the right are the URLs and size of the files, while the counter supplies the total downloads.

But Whamming is more than simply Digital Stalking.

Whamming: Charging You Extra for Spying on You

On top of all of these behind-the-scenes activities, where the ad-tech, spyware, spoofware, web bugs, cookies and who-the-hell-knows what else is invading our privacy – it turns out that all of this digital-sewerage is jacking up America’s data usage— and this has been causing overages and other problems throughout the US.

We estimate that 40% of all data plan costs are based on this and other questionable wireless activities, like ‘unconscious billing’, where the phone mysteriously has charges on the bill, even when the phone appears to be asleep or shut off.

We estimate that $8 billion a month is now being overcharged to pay for this grotesque wireless ‘gig pumping’ of America’s web sites.

On an average bill, (2.9 connections), the four largest wireless companies (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint) collected, on average, about $150 bucks a month in 2016. Forty percent, about $60.00 a month, is in question and caused by this advertising and tracking.

The Wireless Companies and Web Sites are Hiding the Problem

The Yahoo and AOL videos captured just one web page at one specific time. They are not unique—but it is business as usual, (though the ad-tech-crap is now multiplying faster than digital cockroaches.)

Yet, the massiveness of the downloads, etc., has been hidden from view. And hiding all of this activity has been done by the wireless telcos at every turn because if this stuff ever became public, there would be major investigations.

Truth-in-Billing vs You’re Wrong.

Take the case of “Truth-in-Billing”, where the companies are required to supply an accurate bill with all of the charges identified. The FCC’s Truth-in-Billing rules state:

“The Commission has adopted Truth-in-Billing rules to improve consumers' understanding of their telephone bills and to help consumers detect and prevent unauthorized charges (cramming). Among other things, section 64.2401 of the rules require that a telephone company's bill must: (1) provide a brief, clear, non-misleading, plain language description of the service or services rendered to accompany each charge; (2) identify the service provider associated with each charge; (3) clearly and conspicuously identify any change in service provider; (4) contain full and non-misleading descriptions of charges; (7) place charges from third parties that are not telephone companies in a distinct section of the bill, separate from telephone company charges; and (8) provide a separate subtotal for third-party charges in the separate bill section and on the payment page.

Yet today, with data plans, what customers find is no solution and the details are completely missing.

  • When a person complains about overages, the wireless company claims-- It’s the customer’s fault. It’s on their bill and came from their phone (or tablet, etc.).
  • The wireless company will claim that -- The customer needs a larger plan.
  • Verizon et al. will say to the customer -- Pay the bill or we will put you into collections (and ‘ruining your credit’, is understood).
  • Verizon et al. will claim --It doesn’t have the information to deal with overages.

In one case, a Verizon customer with a 1GB Verizon Wireless plan, had a monthly overage and asked what happened. He was given the info below -- the time of day and the amount downloaded to his phone. Problem is – he was asleep and thought his phone was asleep as well.

In fact, when sorting through the usage by time of day, we found that almost ½ of the plan’s usage happened while the person was asleep. For example, on 10/30/16 at 4:21AM, the network recorded 21MB of downloading, with no information about which company or service was responsible for the download. Moreover, the information supplied by Verizon had no detail of what had caused the overage.

And yet, the video shows that at least some of the data is there and the wireless companies could actually detail the companies and services that are causing the large bills—but they refuse to do anything about it.

Think of this as a ‘wrong number’ that shows up on a typical phone bill. Most people reading this have had phone calls billed to their account that the person never made. This has been a common problem for decades. Now, imagine going into a discussion with the wireless companies and demanding to know whether the data being charged was legitimate and not a ‘wrong number’.

Why should any customer pay any overage where the wireless company can’t identify which companies were responsible?

Unlimited Plans Do Not Fix the Problems of Privacy or Whamming.

The FCC’s last report on wireless services, released in 2016, claims that the average customer in 2015 used only 2.9GB, and we estimate the average in 2016 is 3.5GB, (though much of this is increasing is due to whamming, more than simply more use). And this average hides the fact that 25-35% of the population uses, on average, less than 1GB a month.

On the other extreme, the number of customers that use large amounts of data is also in question. T-Mobile claims that only 3% of customers use over 25GB, while Verizon claimed in January 2017 that two-thirds of the population used less than 5GB in 2016.

Adding all of these data points shows that advertising ‘unlimited plans’ is more based on selling a fear of overages than actual usage, and it means that the majority of customers pay a lot more for gigs than they will use.

This is also not about ‘ad-blocking’ tech. Many will point out that ad-blockers can reduce the privacy concerns and lower customers’ bills. In our tests (with and without ad-blocking), we found they could lower the total usage, but, they will not clean up the hundreds of other companies floating around or the issues like “unconscious billing’, where the phone is racking up expenses even though it appears to be asleep and the traffic is coming in the ‘background’, not through the front door.

In short, the video and research shows that privacy is a myth. When you can have a few hundred companies—that you didn’t invite – swarm you, track you, sell info about you, and even cause you to be ‘overcharged’, then the government should be investigating Whamming and Digital Stalking.

Over the next two weeks we will be putting out a report and other research detailing just how out of control the current situation is, and what the government should be doing about it.

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