Verizon to stop sharing phone-location data to third parties

Ruben Fields
June 22, 2018

It appears that Securus was itself buying the data from LocationSmart. LocationSmart is supposed to obtain permission from cellphone owners before serving location data, but a bug in its website let anyone track any cell number from a United States carrier without getting consent.

But the company will not stop sharing that data entirely, the Associated Press reported.

"Our review of our location aggregator program has led to a number of internal questions about how best to protect our customers' location data, " Verizon wrote to Wyden.

The carriers said they will wind down data-sharing agreements with LocationSmart and Zumigo Inc., which buy access to the real-time locations of users from major USA carriers and allow other businesses to tap into it.

Aggregators must obtain consent from the customer before their location data can be used, such as by sending a one-time text message or allowing a user to hit a button in an app.

In a letter that Wyden released Tuesday, Verizon said it found that Securus did "misuse" data gleaned from LocationSmart, one of two data aggregators with which it worked.

"Verizon did the responsible thing and promptly announced it was cutting these companies off", Wyden said in a statement.

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"While @Verizon & @ATT have now pledged to stop selling customer location data to shady middlemen, @TMobile & @sprint seem content to keep selling customers' private information, Americans' privacy be damned", the senator wrote.

In a tweet Tuesday, Wyden praised the companies for abandoning the practices, and he criticized the other two major national wireless carriers. T-Mobile and Sprint haven't announced any policy changes at this time.

Verizon is the first USA wireless carrier to announce plans to break ties with these data brokers. LocationSmart provides data only at the instant it is requested by a service like roadside assistance and user consent has been obtained. However, the location sharing was supposed to only take place with a customer's consent. That means no control of how the brokers used the data. It's bad enough that they have to watch the "Can you hear me now?" guy roast their network availability.

The company subsequently signed a consent order with the FCC promising to restrict that tracking to customers who affirmatively agreed to it. The legislator had demanded last month that carriers and the Federal Communications Commission investigate the practice of tracking phones by a company that provides services to prisons and jails. But the GOP-led Congress quashed those rules a year ago.

Wyden asked the carriers to identify which third parties have been acquiring carrier location data and to provide details such as any third-party sharing of location data without customer consent.

Analysts say it's hard to gauge the size of the location-tracking aggregation market. Wireless carriers have been selling that data for years, but it looks like US operators are now changing their practices a bit.

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