Consumers have heard it all before — mobile carriers promising to stop selling your phone location data to other companies but alas the promise is broken and the data winds up on the black market.
Now, AT&T says it’ll stop the practice for real this time.
The four major carriers pledged to stop selling customer location data to third-party data brokers in June 2018, but Motherboard published a report that T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T were still doing so.
As a federal investigation looms for AT&T, the telecommunications giant said in a statement: “Last year we stopped most location aggregation services while maintaining some that protect our customers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention. In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have decided to eliminate all location aggregation services—even those with clear consumer benefits. We are immediately eliminating the remaining services and will be done in March.”
T-Mobile made a similar promise as did Sprint, and they too are being looked into by the Motherboard investigation. Like AT&T, T-Mobile promised again not to share customers’ data. Verizon was the only one of the four major carriers that wasn’t “flagged.”
According to AT&T, it suspended its data-sharing agreements in 2018 with “location aggregators” and now it says it will end all of the remaining deals it had.
“In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have decided to eliminate all location aggregation services – even those with clear consumer benefits,” AT&T said in a statement. “We are immediately eliminating the remaining services and will be done in March.”
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Motherboard uncovered information that major U.S. wireless carriers T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint were selling the location data of their customers in an unregulated market.
It was the Democrats who called for an investigation of the carriers’ data-sharing practices. “The FCC needs to investigate. Stat,” Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted.
The @fcc needs to investigate. Stat.https://t.co/1qe8ko1PbH— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) January 8, 2019
The next day she posted on Twitter: “It shouldn’t be that you pay a few hundred dollars to a bounty hunter and then they can tell you in real time where a phone is within a few hundred meters. That’s not right. This entire ecosystem needs oversight.”
Other Democrats weighted in. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wrote that “The FCC needs to immediately investigate reports of this system of repackaging and reselling location data to unregulated third-party services and take the necessary steps to protect Americans’ privacy.”
The American people have an absolute right to the privacy of their data. The FCC needs to immediately investigate reports of this system of repackaging and reselling location data to unregulated third party services and take the necessary steps to protect Americans’ privacy. https://t.co/1wm17jYAXz— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) January 10, 2019
By law, phone carriers must protect “Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI),” and the FCC’s definition of CPNI includes location data. If these companies don’t, the FTC can punish them.
“But the Republican-controlled agencies haven’t shown much willingness to go after telecom companies for privacy violations…While mobile voice and landline phones are still treated as common carrier services, mobile broadband and home Internet services aren’t subject to the CPNI rules that apply to common carriers,” Ars Technica reported.
There are some valid reasons to share location data. “As Motherboard reported, there are legitimate uses for the sharing of location data, including detecting financial fraud or locating motorists who need roadside assistance. But according to the report, in some cases the sensitive information was resold without authorization for purposes that violated data-sharing policies and without the knowledge of the phone company and its third-party partners,” the Inquirer reported.
Mobile service companies sell cellular location data as a feature that could streamline things like roadside assistance and fraud prevention. However, given recent criticism, both @ATT and @TMobile announced that in March they will stop selling such info. https://t.co/2Neq8QUiLx— Adam Levin (@Adam_K_Levin) January 16, 2019