August 13, 2022

Use of operator location data again under investigation after broken promises

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is again investigating the collection and use of carrier location data – the information that mobile networks have about the location of your mobile devices and your movement patterns.

This follows a previous investigation that found last year that cellphone carriers violated federal law by selling this private data to a number of third-party companies…


Just carrying your iPhone or another cellular-connected device like an Apple Watch or iPad is enough to tell your mobile carrier where you are. Your devices periodically ping the network so that incoming calls can be routed to the correct cell tower. Triangulating signal strength across three or more cell towers can reveal your location within 100 yards – sometimes even more accurately.

A 2019 report found that carriers were making this location data available for sale. Buyers included bounty hunters, some of whom later resold the data on the black market.

An FCC investigation into the practice found that the wireless carriers “apparently violated federal law” by selling the data without permission. AT&T has denied any involvement, while T-Mobile and Sprint have said they will stop selling such data – promises that have apparently not been kept.

Use of operator location data – new investigation

Ars technique reports that a new FCC investigation has been ordered into current practices.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel has ordered mobile carriers to explain what geolocation data they collect from customers and how they use it. […]

“Mobile Internet Service Providers are uniquely positioned to capture a wealth of data about their own subscribers, including the actual identity and personal characteristics of the subscriber, geolocation data, application usage, and data and web browsing habits,” the letters read. Under US Communications Law, carriers are prohibited from using or sharing private information except in specific circumstances.

Rosenworcel has asked operators to respond to questions by August 3. The recipients of the letter included the big three carriers AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon; cable companies Comcast and Charter, which resell mobile service; mobile operators Consumer Cellular, C-Spire, Dish, Google, H2O Wireless, Lycamobile, Mint Mobile, Red Pocket and US Cellular; and Best Buy Health, which operates the mobile medical service Lively.

One question specifically asks if, and how, customers can opt out.

Describe in detail the process by which a subscriber can opt out of sharing their geolocation data. As part of this opt-out process, is this subscriber’s data still shared with third parties? In particular, does the opt-out process allow a subscriber to opt out of sharing their geolocation data with all non-law enforcement third parties?

Fear that privacy law could make matters worse

While there was progress on a federal privacy law this week, some fear it could actually make matters worse, by removing the FCC’s powers to intervene.

Harold Feld, senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, and others fear the FCC will be blocked from regulating the phone industry’s privacy practices under bipartisan legislation approved by the House Commerce Committee on Wednesday. The U.S. Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADDPA) “makes the Federal Trade Commission the sole enforcement agency responsible for overseeing data privacy, with limited exceptions, overriding the role of the Federal Communications Commission” […]

“The FCC’s investigation into mobile carriers’ geolocation data policies is a powerful reminder that the FCC already has the power to protect the privacy of mobile phone customers” under Section 222 of the FCC. communications law, Stanford law professor Barbara van Schewick wrote on Twitter. “The ADDPA federal privacy bill negotiated in Congress would eliminate this authority.”

Some say the FTC has been more reluctant than the FCC to act on privacy issues.

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