- Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
- AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have all announced plans to cease the sale of real-time location sharing to third parties.
- The development follows an investigation conducted by Vice’s Motherboard where a bounty hunter was able to track down a reporter’s phone by using just a phone number.
- Senators and policy makers are now calling for increased legislation on the carriers and have called the practice a breach of national security.
Amid increasing pressure from federal lawmakers, three of the major US wireless carriers announced plans to end the sale of location data sharing after a report by Motherboard showed just how easy it was for a bounty hunter to track a reporter’s phone.
AT&T said Thursday, two days after the report was published, that it will stop selling all location data from mobile phones to brokers beginning in March. T-Mobile chief executive John Legere said in a tweet that it will “completely” end “location aggregator work” in two months as well. As for Verizon, it too will cease its four remaining location-sharing agreements, according to a statement to The Washington Post.
Verizon said there will be an exception for useful services that, for instance, help customers with roadside assistance or fraud protection, but only after the user gives permission. An AT&T spokesperson said it no longer supports location aggregation services.
In the Motherboard investigation, a reporter gave a bounty hunter $300 to discover the real-time location of a phone, which was tracked down in Queens, New York by just using its T-Mobile phone number.
The investigation concluded that AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all sell customer location data in the unregulated black market via data brokers. Data brokers collect information on individuals, most of the time without their knowledge, and distribute it to third-party entities in exchange for money.
Senators, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) all made statements this week urging Congress to pass legislation to ensure location-data sales come to a halt. On Twitter, Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner for the FCC, called for an investigation into the controversial practice to happen “stat” on Jan. 8 on Twitter.
— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) January 8, 2019
NEW: Disturbing details from @motherboard on how wireless carriers are selling the location data of Americans. This is a nightmare for national security and the personal safety of anyone with a phone. https://t.co/2GN3LwarTM
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) January 8, 2019
I keep my word, @RonWyden. T-Mobile IS completely ending location aggregator work. We’re doing it the right way to avoid impacting consumers who use these types of services for things like emergency assistance. It will end in March, as planned and promised.
— John Legere (@JohnLegere) January 9, 2019
“The FCC needs to investigate,” Rosenworcel said Wednesday on MSNBC. “This entire ecosystem needs oversight.”
However, these recent demands from lawmakers come nearly seven months after Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile originally pledged to stop providing information on phone owners’ locations to data brokers. In the months since, there have been several other investigations done by news publications highlighting the persistence of the practice, including one from The New York Times, which tracked users doing their usual routines.