Telecom companies say they won't share your location data anymore

Isaac Cain
June 22, 2018

"In contrast, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint seem content to continuing to sell their customers' private information to these shady middle men, Americans' privacy be damned", he said. Every so often that lack of oversight becomes painfully clear as we just saw with the Securus and Locationsmart scandal, which exposed the location data of roughly 200 million USA and Canadian wireless consumers. It will come as no surprise to learn that the data was being misused across a number of brokers, and security researcher Brian Krebs even found that one data firm was enabling anyone to find location data on any cell number, for free.

First up, Verizon Wireless confirmed in a letter to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that it would be cutting off location data from third-party brokers, including institutions it has worked with for quite some time, including Zumigo and LocationSmart.

"We will be ending our work with aggregators for these services as soon as practical in a way that preserves important, potential lifesaving services like emergency roadside assistance", said a spokesperson. A web portal allowed correctional officers to enter any U.S. phone number and obtain real-time location data on consumers. Typically, the company said, the data sharing helps auto rental companies provide roadside assistance and allows financial services companies to combat fraud. Aggregators could then share location data with their own customers.

Location data from Verizon and other carriers makes it possible to identify the whereabouts of almost any phone in the US within seconds. The Associated Press said the company wrote a letter to Sen. Wyden that it "requires internal approval of every service provider and use, including the mechanism by which the service provider will obtain customer consent before any location information is shared with partners and service providers".

T-Mobile CEO John Legere, in a Tweet, took issue with Wyden's statement, saying the company has made the same pledge as Verizon. They involved a former Missouri sheriff who allegedly used a location tracking service to surveil colleagues.

Responses from the other carriers are available here: AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Both companies buy real-time access to this data from cell carriers, but a lack of oversight resulted in access to this data being routinely abused.

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Verizon says it will be axing those partnership deals with the brokers as soon as possible.

"We believe that ending the ability of law enforcement to use these critical tools will hurt public safety and put Americans at risk", the spokesman said. "We stand-by that commitment to our customers".

The two largest USA wireless carrier announced the move in response to a plea from Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon.

As for T-Mobile and Sprint, things are still up in the air.

AT&T, in a letter to Wyden, said they only allow authorized third parties to access the data when customers have given consent or when forced to via a court order.

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