Phone carriers tell feds they have mostly stopped sharing location data

Phone carriers tell feds they have mostly stopped sharing location data
© Greg Nash

Phone companies are trying to reassure the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that they are no longer sharing their customers’ location data with third parties.

All four major wireless carriers told Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a series of letters this month that they have ended the practice, which had come under increasing scrutiny from regulators.

Rosenworcel released the letters on Thursday and said she is still seeking answers about the FCC’s investigation into the industry.

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“I don’t recall consenting to this surveillance when I signed up for wireless service—and I bet neither do you,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “This is an issue that affects the privacy and security of every American with a wireless phone. It is chilling to think what a black market for this data could mean in the hands of criminals, stalkers, and those who wish to do us harm.”

Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile all told Rosenworcel that, aside from some limited exceptions, they had ended their partnerships with the location aggregators at the heart of the scandals, which they had promised to do in the midst of an outcry over the revelations.

Damning press reports published over the past year have detailed the ease with which the data can end up in the wrong hands. Motherboard reported earlier this year that it had obtained precise geolocation information of a cell phone after giving a bounty hunter $300 and a phone number.

And The New York Times reported last year that a former sheriff in Mississippi had been using a third-party location aggregator to track people without a warrant, prompting the FCC to launch its investigation.

But the FCC has remained quiet about its probe and Democratic lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated with the GOP-led commission as the investigation drags on.

“Today, we still don’t have assurances that these practices have stopped,” Rep. Mike DoyleMichael (Mike) F. DoyleDemocrats demand FCC act over leak of phone location data Hillicon Valley: Google, Reddit to testify on tech industry protections | Trump joins Amazon-owned Twitch | House to vote on bill to combat foreign interference Reddit, Google to testify before House panel on tech's legal protections MORE (D-Pa.) told FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at a hearing on Wednesday. “Since we first heard about this problem, new, even more troubling reports have emerged that data was being sold to bounty hunters and god knows who else. Americans don’t know who had access to this data, who sold this data or whether anyone is going to be held accountable because we’ve heard nothing about it yet from the FCC.”

Pai told lawmakers that he cannot comment on an active investigation.

“The FCC has been totally silent about press reports that for a few hundred dollars shady middlemen can sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. That’s unacceptable,” Rosenworcel said on Thursday.