Verizon, AT&T to end location data sales to brokers

Sheri Evans
June 22, 2018

In a letter to Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, the company said roughly 75 third-parties had gotten their hands on customer data via two separate companies, reports the Associated Press.

Wyden had begun probing the largely unaccountable rabbit hole that is location data sharing.

On Tuesday, a LocationSmart spokesman responded to the scrutiny of its business, saying: "There has been a lot of wildly misleading information published about this situation", and provided a link to an FAQ about the company. How this will be done isn't entirely clear; in the company's letter to Wyden, Verizon said it'll create "alternative arrangements" to minimize the privacy risks. "We continue to review all customer use to ensure compliance with LocationSmart's terms of user requiring user consent".

The decision brings telecom companies further into the debate over data privacy, which has intensified in recent months amid heightened scrutiny of data practices at Facebook, as well as the rise of a new European data protection law.

"Verizon deserves credit for taking quick action to protect its customers' privacy and security", Wyden said in a statement on Tuesday.

In addition, the Senator sent out a pair of tweets that announced the decisions made by Verizon and AT&T to stop selling the location data, and lambasted T-Mobile and Sprint for their decision "to keep selling customers' private information, Americans' privacy be damned".

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"Our top priority is to protect our customers' information, and, to that end, we will be ending our work with aggregators for these services as soon as practical in a way that preserves important, potential lifesaving services like emergency roadside assistance", he said.

Updated at 4pm ET: Added a statement from Sprint and 4:22pm ET with comment from T-Mobile's chief executive. AT&T and Verizon now say they will stop selling data to these third-party brokers. Typically, the company said, the data sharing helps vehicle rental companies provide roadside assistance and allows financial services companies to combat fraud.

They failed to answer most of the questions Wyden had asked - most notably on the number of customers that had had their location data wrongly sold - and simply repeated the line that third parties are only allowed to access location data if users have given their consent. But Securus Technologies Inc., which provides phone services to correctional facilities, was acquiring the data from phone companies and offering it via a web portal, he said. The data is obtained using cell towers, and while it's slower and less accurate than Global Positioning System, allows the tracking to happen seamlessly in the background without alerting the person in question.

But the phone giants remained vague on exactly how the companies obtained customers' consent to provide data to LocationSmart in the first place.

New privacy regulations from the FCC enacted in 2016 would have imposed greater restrictions on Internet providers and their handling of customer data. But the GOP-led Congress quashed those rules previous year.

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