AT&T, T-Mobile Will Stop Giving Your Location Data to Third Parties

Daniel Fowler
January 13, 2019

Faced with a new privacy debacle, AT&T says it will stop selling data about wireless users' locations.

Earlier this week, AT&T said it "only permit [s] sharing of location when a customer gives permission for cases like fraud prevention or emergency roadside assistance or when required by law".

The scandal has resulted in new promises from carriers.

For more context, last year, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint sold data to LocationSmart, a Location-as-a-Service company, which in turn sold this information to prison technology firm Securus via a broker, 3Cinteractive.

"In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have made a decision to eliminate all location aggregation services - even those with clear consumer benefits", AT&T said in a statement.

T-Mobile offered a similar promise, as we noted in an update to our story on Tuesday. While T-Mobile does not have a direct relationship with Microbilt, our vendor Zumigo was working with them and has confirmed with us that they have already shut down all transmission of T-Mobile data.

All of that said, there's countless folks who think they're taking meaningful steps to protect their privacy by deleting Facebook (or on-phone apps), yet are oblivious to the perils of walking around with a stock carrier phone in their pocket.

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Verizon was not among the carriers flagged in Motherboard's report.

Seven months later, Motherboard found that public outrage was enough to get carriers to examine who they passed data off too, but not enough for them to stop the practice; in a test, a bounty hunter was able to track down a participating reporter's location using data from Zumigo, another major Location-as-a-Service company, that was acquired by Microbilt, a credit reporting company. As an illustrative example, Joseph Cox of Motherboard managed to track down the real-time location of his friend (who was a willing participant in the experiment) for just $300.

Verizon said it has "maintained the prior arrangements for four roadside assistance companies during the winter months for public safety reasons, but they have agreed to transition out of the existing arrangements by the end of the March. We have terminated all other such arrangements". That's because it isn't the first time U.S. carriers have pledged to safeguard their customers' location data.

However, these recent demands from lawmakers come almost seven months after Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile originally pledged to stop providing information on phone owners' locations to data brokers. "The FCC needs to investigate".

The commission's senior Democrat, Jessica Rosenworcel, concurs.

Motherboard first reported how bounty hunters were selling access to the real-time information for only a few hundred dollars. They also need to educate users on their rights when it comes to data.

US Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote, "This information could be obtained by anyone: a stalker, an ex, or a child predator". Congress should act on passing comprehensive legislation and empowering specialized agencies like the FCC. The bottom line is that the Ajit Pai FCC could easily address this problem using the authority it has now, they've just chosen not to because it might just hurt telecom revenues. It would at least allow the Commission to investigate the matter with MicroBilt, but with the current government shutdown, unfortunately there is not much that can be done at the very moment - and there's no guarantee this FCC would do that anyway.

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