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After Promises To Stop, Mobile Providers Continued Sales Of Location Data About Consumers. What You Can Do To Protect Your Privacy

Sadly, history repeats itself. First, the history: after getting caught selling consumers' real-time GPS location data without notice nor consumers' consent, in 2018 mobile providers promised to stop the practice. The Ars Technica blog reported in June, 2018:

"Verizon and AT&T have promised to stop selling their mobile customers' location information to third-party data brokers following a security problem that leaked the real-time location of US cell phone users. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) recently urged all four major carriers to stop the practice, and today he published responses he received from Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile USA, and SprintWyden's statement praised Verizon for "taking quick action to protect its customers' privacy and security," but he criticized the other carriers for not making the same promise... AT&T changed its stance shortly after Wyden's statement... Senator Wyden recognized AT&T's change on Twitter and called on T-Mobile and Sprint to follow suit."

Kudos to Senator Wyden. The other mobile providers soon complied... sort of.

Second, some background: real-time location data is very valuable stuff. It indicates where you are as you (with your phone or other mobile devices) move about the physical world in your daily routine. No delays. No lag. Yes, there are appropriate uses for real-time GPS location data -- such as by law enforcement to quickly find a kidnapped person or child before further harm happens. But, do any and all advertisers need real-time location data about consumers? Data brokers? Others?

I think not. Domestic violence and stalking victims probably would not want their, nor their children's, real-time location data resold publicly. Most parents would not want their children's location data resold publicly. Most patients probably would not want their location data broadcast every time they visit their physician, specialist, rehab, or a hospital. Corporate executives, government officials, and attorneys conducting sensitive negotiations probably wouldn't want their location data collected and resold, either.

So, most consumers probably don't want their real-time location data resold publicly. Well, some of you make location-specific announcements via posts on social media. That's your choice, but I conclude that most people don't. Consumers want control over their location information so they can decide if, when, and with whom to share it. The mass collection and sales of consumers' real-time location data by mobile providers prevents choice -- and it violates persons' privacy.

Third, fast forward seven months from 2018. TechCrunch reported on January 9th:

"... new reporting by Motherboard shows that while [reseller] LocationSmart faced the brunt of the criticism [in 2018], few focused on the other big player in the location-tracking business, Zumigo. A payment of $300 and a phone number was enough for a bounty hunter to track down the participating reporter by obtaining his location using Zumigo’s location data, which was continuing to pay for access from most of the carriers. Worse, Zumigo sold that data on — like LocationSmart did with Securus — to other companies, like Microbilt, a Georgia-based credit reporting company, which in turn sells that data on to other firms that want that data. In this case, it was a bail bond company, whose bounty hunter was paid by Motherboard to track down the reporter — with his permission."

"Everyone seemed to drop the ball. Microbilt said the bounty hunter shouldn’t have used the location data to track the Motherboard reporter. Zumigo said it didn’t mind location data ending up in the hands of the bounty hunter, but still cut Microbilt’s access. But nobody quite dropped the ball like the carriers, which said they would not to share location data again."

The TechCrunch article rightly held offending mobile providers accountable. Example: T-Mobile's chief executive tweeted last year:

Then, Legere tweeted last week:

The right way? In my view, real-time location never should have been collected and resold. Almost a year after reports first surfaced, T-Mobile is finally getting around to stopping the practice and terminating its relationships with location data resellers -- two months from now. Why not announce this slow wind-down last year when the issue first surfaced? "Emergency assistance" is the reason we are supposed to believe. Yeah, right.

The TechCrunch article rightly took AT&T and Verizon to task, too. Good. I strongly encourage everyone to read the entire TechCrunch article.

What can consumers make of this? There seem to be several takeaways:

  1. Transparency is needed, since corporate privacy policies don't list all (or often any) business partners. This lack of transparency provides an easy way for mobile providers to resume location data sales without notice to anyone and without consumers' consent,
  2. Corporate executives will say anything in tweets/social media. A healthy dose of skepticism by consumers and regulators is wise,
  3. Consumers can't trust mobile providers. They are happy to make money selling consumers' real-time location data, regardless of consumers' desires not for our data to be collected and sold,
  4. Data brokers and credit reporting agencies want consumers' location data,
  5. To ensure privacy, consumers also must take action: adjust the privacy settings on your phones to limit or deny mobile apps access to your location data. I did. It's not hard. Do it today, and
  6. Oversight is needed, since a) mobile providers have, at best, sloppy to minimal oversight and internal processes to prevent location data sales; and b) data brokers and others are readily available to enable and facilitate location data transactions.

I cannot over-emphasize #5 above. What issues or takeaways do you see? What are your opinions about real-time location data?

Comments

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Caren Nash

Please do not let anyone know what and where I am. The thought that I could be tracked down and hunted by a stranger while just doing my own thing is very scary. I really don’t want any of my information or locations published. I feel like this is an invasion of my privacy, not that I am doing anything bad. Just the thought that we have no idea who is watching us, and what they’re going to do with this information.

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