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July 05, 2013 | Ed Paton Williams

Mobile Privacy: 'You can't see the contract until after we've done a credit check'

How do you choose which mobile operator to go with? A good deal? Strong coverage in your area? Access to the best new handset? Would you like to know which companies let you keep your data private?


On Wednesday afternoon, I left the ORG office and went to the mobile operators' shops on the Strand in central London.

Could I get a good deal, strong coverage, a great new handset and choose a company that let me keep my data private?

Mobile Shops

To do that, I'd need to be able to have a look at their contracts to see which one was best. It didn't seem likely that they'd just hand them over without the prospect of a sale.

I needed a story. Here's what I told the sales assistants.

"I'm looking for a phone and contract for my dad. He's never needed a mobile before but he had a fall recently. I just want to get him one for peace of mind." (None of that is true by the way.)

The sales assistants in Three, O2, Vodafone, EE and Phones4U were more than happy to tell you about tarifs, give phone demos and talk about how easy it is to transfer numbers over.

After the sales pitches, I told them a request my dad had.

"My dad's quite privacy-conscious. He told me he's been reading stories in the newspaper about mobile companies tracking where their customers go. I'm sure it's all fine but he told me to read the contracts before picking a company to go with."

Suddenly it was a very different story.

'You can't see the contract until after we've done a credit check' was the response in all the shops. I pushed back each time. 'I just want to make sure I read whatever I'm going to sign.'

The guy in Vodafone let me have a quick look but said I couldn't take it away. I could have a promotional flyer though, which was nice. After a lot of persuasion, EE reluctantly let me take the contract home to have a look at.

In O2, Three, and Phones4U, they all said that they don't have contracts in the shop. They print them out each time apparently. Not very likely. Vodafone and EE both had the contracts and terms & conditions behind the till.

I laid out my predicament to the woman in Phones4U, "My dad wants to choose his mobile operator based how they handle his data. But you won't let me see the contract saying how they handle his data until he chooses his mobile operator."

My only option was to agree to the mobile company carrying out a credit check on me before I could see the documents I'd have to sign. And I definitely didn't want to do that just to see the contract.

It's pretty clear there was a serious lack of transparency. Was I unable to see the contracts because of a policy set by the companies? Or were the sales assistants out of line in not showing me the documents I'd have had to agree to eventually anyway?

Whichever is the case, the only straightforward way to find out what data the mobile companies collect and what they do with it is reading the ORG Wiki page documenting their privacy policies.

But if you were on the Strand on Wednesday afternoon and wanted to buy a phone and contract from a mobile company that told you if you could keep your data private, you were definitely out of luck.

Image by Simon Phipps under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

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