Four Major US Phone Carriers Have Announced Plans to Better Protect Privacy

While using your smartphone chances are you’ve probably had an app ask for permission to access your location. Most of the time, you probably don’t think twice about pressing accept. For example, how is your Uber driver going to find you if the app doesn’t know where you are?

However, in May, a U.S. senator, Ron Wyden (D-OR), expressed his concern that Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile were giving certain government officials a way to access your location illegally without you even knowing about it.  But now, all four carriers revealed plans to end the practice, according to a press release on Wyden’s website.

While some companies request your location directly from your phone carrier, others use middlemen called “location aggregators.” These aggregators pay phone carriers for bulk access to users’ locations. Carriers leave it up to the aggregator to make sure their clients have permission to access location information and that their requests abide by all laws.

On May 8, Wyden sent letters to Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile questioning their relationships with Securus Technologies, a client of LocationSmart, a location aggregator in a data-sharing agreement with all four carriers.

Securus’s main business is to offer and monitor inmate phone calls, but it also offers a secondary service: providing law enforcement and corrections officials with the locations of people not incarcerated. All officials have to do is upload a legal document authorizing the location request, such as a warrant, and Securus lets them know the person’s location.

Here’s the issue with that: Securus never actually reviewed any of these documents.

The company wrote in a statement to the New York Times that the responsibility of making sure the legal adequacy of supporting documentation lies with our law enforcement customers and their counsel. At least one person, Cory Hutcheson, former sheriff of Mississippi County, Missouri, allegedly used the service to locate people illegally, which triggered Wyden to take action.

In his letter to AT&T, he wrote that this practice skirts wireless carrier’s legal obligation to be the sole conduit by which the government may conduct surveillance of Americans’ phone records, and needlessly exposes millions of Americans to potential abuse and unchecked surveillance by the governments.

And now, all four carriers, starting with Verizon, announced some form of severance from two location aggregators: LocationSmart and Zumigo.

Verizon CTO Karen Zacharia wrote in a response to Wyden that they performed a comprehensive review of their location aggregator program and as a result of this review, they are initiating a process to terminate our existing agreements for the location aggregator program.

On top of sending letters to the carriers themselves, Wyden also wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking it to look into the carriers’ oversight.

The good news is that means the issue of location aggregators is at least on the agency’s radar and ultimately, this decision by Verizon and the other carriers is a positive step forward.



Image Credit: NicoElNino / Shutterstock


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