Your Location is For Sale Courtesy of Your Cell Service
Right now, for a couple hundred bucks at most anyone can track your exact location
It might come as no surprise that this extremely modern capability – seemingly more the tool of an intelligence agency than an author with ample time on their hands – is thanks to the supercomputer in your pocket; your cell phone.
Of course, we thought we had already dealt with this.
In June 2018, all four major US wireless carriers pledged to stop selling their mobile customers’ location information after coming under attack from a concerned Congress and public. The carriers were pressured into making the change after a security problem leaked the real-time location of US cell phone users; something with clear safety implications.
But an investigation by Motherboard found that:
“T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are [still] selling access to their customers’ location data and that data is ending up in the hands of bounty hunters and others not authorized to possess it, letting them track most phones in the country.”
The crux of the issue is, as Motherboard explains telecom companies – unable to take advantage themselves – in the United States sell access to their customers’ location data to other companies, called location aggregators. These aggregators then become middlemen of your information selling it off at a profit to whoever they can.
Last year, one location aggregator called LocationSmart faced harsh criticism for selling data that ultimately ended up in the hands of Securus, a company notorious for turning over information to low level enforcement without requiring a warrant, like bounty hunters. LocationSmart also simply exposed the very data it was selling to hackers through a buggy website panel, meaning anyone could geolocate nearly any phone in the United States at a click of a mouse; delightful.
“There’s a complex supply chain that shares some of American cell phone users’ most sensitive data, with the telco’s potentially being unaware of how the data is being used by the eventual end user, or even whose hands it lands in. Financial companies use phone location data to detect fraud; roadside assistance firms use it to locate stuck customers. But AT&T, for example, told Motherboard the use of its customers’ data by bounty hunters goes explicitly against the company’s policies, raising questions about how AT&T allowed the sale for this purpose in the first place.”
Can They Be Trusted?
While T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint – the largest involved carriers – all were quick to tell media they’d be halting all business with the illuminated questionable middlemen, the reality is they *already* promised Congress half a year ago to (pardon my French) ‘cut the shit.’
A company in possession of your constant location is powerful, too powerful. While consumers were already uncomfortable with Mega corporations acquiring the information, the fact that it’s being sold off to sketchy third parties is beyond flawed, its malpractice.
The only thing cell service providers should be concerned with in regard to location information is keeping it secure, not hoarding it to sell to bounty hunters one dubious middleman removed.
Thus, the good news is Sprint and friends say they’ll stop helping random people hunt you down… but then again what is their word really worth at this point?
Editor’s note: This is a 1984 nightmare. Perhaps we should have some way of turning GPS off on our phones and bar any carrier from storing your location at any time.