AT&T vows to stop selling location data

Ivan Schwartz
January 13, 2019

AT&T and T-Mobile say they'll stop handing over your cell phone location data to third parties after a report found the information could end up for sale on the black market.

Verizon also reportedly said it will stop sharing users' locations; the company now has agreements with roadside assistance services.

This week, Joseph Cox at Motherboard dropped yet another bombshell report on this subject, noting how he was easily able to pay a bounty hunter $300 to obtain the (supposedly) private location data collected by his cellular provider (T-Mobile).

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Other critics said Americans have an "absolute right" to their privacy of their data. It is yet another example that highlights the importance of a specialized federal agency enforcement, and the need for a comprehensive privacy legislation. Wyden has been a leading voice for consumer protections in Congress, and particularly when a similar circumstance occurred last May that culminated with promises from all the major wireless carriers to end the practice of selling location data to third parties. As you might expect, the bad publicity hasn't stopped carriers from working with those companies, as evidenced by a recent article from Motherboard. Back then, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) discovered that a company called Securus Technologies was selling people's location data to the cops, and insisted that America's telecoms watchdog the FCC investigate.

He is proposing legislation to better protect personal information.

It is true that your phone can reveal everywhere you go even though you may not know about it. Cell towers and Global Positioning System data provide nearly accurate information about where you may be from time to time. "But until 2020, and until other states become as proactive as California, we have no choice, and that's why the lack of a penalty for the abuse is so galling", Court said.

Mobile carriers are again promising to stop selling your phone location data to other companies-this time for real. "I'll believe it when I see it", said US Senator Ron Wyden, who called on the FCC to investigate the issue a year ago.

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"In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have chose to eliminate all location aggregation services - even those with clear consumer benefits", an AT&T spokesman stated this week.

Verizon, the only major USA carrier not cited for the most recent problem, said it is working hard to implement commitments made last summer about location aggregation agreements.

Despite the government shutdown, Congress is calling on the Federal Communications Commission to explain why mobile carriers are still selling customer location data. "To be transparent, we have maintained the prior arrangements for four roadside assistance companies during the winter months for public safety reasons but they have agreed to transition out of the existing arrangements by the end of the March". However, the details were identical: it was an approved third party that purchased subscribers' location records from a carrier, and through a chain of organizations, sold that private location data to pretty much anyone willing to pay it: from vehicle salespeople, stalkers, and property managers to criminals, bounty hunters, and private investigators, potentially.

The FCC could still take some action under its Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) rules.

However, without these rules, the broadband providers are not incentivized to change anything despite their aloof public ideals of prioritizing consumer data privacy - even with Securus previous year and Motherboard's exposé about MicroBilt a few days ago, a representative of T-Mobile's response was that it is only "nearly finished the process of terminating its agreements with location aggregators". "We have previously stated that we are terminating the agreements we have with third party data aggregators and we are almost finished with that process", the company wrote in a statement. The FTC could also probably ding T-Mobile for being "unfair and deceptive" under Section 5 of the FTC act, yet has been similarly mute as carriers bullshit their way around their failures on this front. Legere tweeted this week: "T-Mobile is completely ending location aggregator work".

This call revealed that even after the phone companies in the United States promised that they would stop selling it, they continued to do same. The data he received reportedly included longitude and latitude coordinates accurate up to roughly 0.3 miles.

Sprint said earlier this week that it is "investigating this matter and it would be inappropriate to comment further until that process is complete".

Other reports by GizPress

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