As People Realize That There's Tons Of Mobile Phone Tracking Data Out There, Fingers Start Pointing

from the don't-blame-us,-blame-them dept

While there’s been plenty of concern in the past couple weeks about Apple’s iPhone/iPad location data, followed by Google’s Android location data, plenty of people pointed out from the beginning that what both companies have done completely pales in comparison to the sort of data that mobile phone operators regularly collect on you. Even as lawsuits have been filed against both Apple and Google, few of the people who are really upset about those two companies seem to recognize that what the operators have is much, much more complete. The mobile operators, apparently fearing that people may start to realize this, have become a bit proactive and are trying to convince everyone that the real problems are elsewhere — specifically with apps on phones, not with the service providers. You see, don’t worry about all the data we collect. Just look at what those apps are doing:

AT&T noted it ?plays no role? in what kind of information smartphone apps collect, while T-Mobile pointed out the ways in which that data can be used.

Sprint lamented ?consumers no longer can look to their trusted carrier with whom they have a trusted relationship to answer all of their questions,? particularly on privacy.

And Verizon Wireless called out smartphone app makers directly on the issue, stressing ?location-based applications and services (whether provided by us or third parties such as Google) should give customers clear and transparent notice? and control.

This was in response to questions from Congressional Reps. Ed Markey and Joe Barton, leading all of the operators to also admit that they collect such data as well, but really, apps. Apps are a bigger issue. Just focus on the apps. Really. Apps.

Filed Under: ,
Companies: apple, at&t, google, sprint, t-mobile, verizon

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Comments on “As People Realize That There's Tons Of Mobile Phone Tracking Data Out There, Fingers Start Pointing”

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sumquy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“The crux is whether the carrier collected data is available without a warrant. If it is, then they have problem. If not, it’s apples & oranges and not reasonable to conflate the two.”

no that’s not the “crux’ at all. it is the exact same information. corporate america has gone so far in pursuit of profits at the expense of ethics that the information that should require a warrant for the government to obtain is instead for sale to it. the 10 page contract you signed with att or cox or jcpenny allows them to collect and sell that information. of course they won’t sell it to you, just associate business entities. do you think that doesn’t include the government?

art guerrilla says:

Re: Re: Re:

ain’t that the harsh truth…
i had an administrative matter with the state of florida where i was *attempting* to contact a POS bureaucrat for almost a month, 5-10 times a day…
when push came to shove, i was going to ‘prove’ my herculean attempts to contact them through ‘my’ (ha!) phone records…
ONLY I COULD *NOT* get a listing of ‘my’ phone calls from ‘my’ phone number made by me !!! WTF?
i was told the only way i could get a copy of the calls I MADE FROM MY HOME (landline) phone that i made, was to supoena them ! ! !
it took MANY calls to their corporate hellhole before i *finally* got a copy of the calls…
whereby i proved the state bureaucrat was a lying POS (probably in complete accordance with un-stated state policy of screwing people over), and ‘won’ my case…
if not for being a noisy PITA, i doubt i would have gotten that copy of MY OWN DAMN phone records…
The Bastards ! ! !
all korporate entities must die !
(that some few are benign is no saving grace…)

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

Anonymous Coward says:

Cell phone companies and geo-location records

Just to be clear, the phone company has been collecting this information since the advent of the mobile phone- Advanced Mobile Phone Service (AMPS) (copyright 1979, American Telephone and Telegraph Company, The Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 58, No. 1, January 1979)-

For mobile-originated calls, the data that are recorded include the conventional called and calling numbers, answer time, and disconnect time. This portion of the record deals with the message unit and toll charges associated with the wire-line network. Also recorded in the AMA entry is the radio voice channel seizure and release times and the initial cell-site identification. [emphasis added] These items pertain to the usage of the AMPS radio facilities.

A typical cell-site is arranged in a three sector configuration, the alpha, beta, and gamma faces (think triangle, with directional antennas for their respective 120 degree sector). So all you need is a table of where the cell-site is located (trivial) and what the channel assignments are, and you’ve got yourself a pretty decent approximation of where the user is.

Clearly you can imagine a number of simple, easy to implement “additions” to this to get both better and more data- the AMA record only records the information for placed or received calls.

The point is this- these are billing records, which are handled as if they were gold (it is, after all, how they bill you with those expensive per minute fees). Just imagine if you archived all those AMA records (highly likely), and put them in a big database. You’d have a pretty decent location record of cell phone users that extends back years, and most likely, decades. This isn’t a hypothetical “if you just added this…”, this is “it’s already been recorded and archived as part of the record that allowed them to compute how many minutes you used.”

I mean, seriously, just think about it- there are thousands of cells in just a city, not to mention a state or nation. Your cell phone (essentially) only talks to a single cell-site at a time- in order for your cell phone to ring when someone calls your cells number, it has to know how to find that one cell-site out of all of the cell-sites that your cell phone is “connected” to, regardless of whether or not your “at home” or roaming to completely different city on the other side of the continent. All this information is readily available- all you need to do is record it.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Cell phone companies and geo-location records

…Now, go one step further. Just imagine you had a government that would ask the same phone companies to tap your phone line without a warrant.

Now imagine those phone companies just rolled over, and gave the wiretap to the government. Wouldn’t that be an awful invasion of your privacy.

Then imagine if people found out, and sued the phone companies. But it could be worse: what if the government were so crooked and twisted that it decided to pass a law that gave phone companies immunity…nay, RETROACTIVE immunity for offering the snoops an unlawful wiretap on your line! Gawd! That would be a tremendous, unconstitutional, over-bearing violation of US citizens’ privacy. Thankfully, that would never happen in the USA. (sad sarc tag)

My current point is, our gov’t and our phone companies already know where you are, and where you’ve been. And they’ve been shown to abuse that info and then some. I don’t like the Apple transgression, but it seems to pale in comparison.

Slicerwizard says:

“I mean, seriously, just think about it- there are thousands of cells in just a city”

Exaggerate much?

“Your cell phone (essentially) only talks to a single cell-site at a time- in order for your cell phone to ring when someone calls your cells (sic) number, it has to know how to find that one cell-site out of all of the cell-sites that your cell phone is “connected” to”

Uh, no. Cell sites are grouped into fairly large “location areas” and handsets only register with a site when they traverse from one location area to another. Incoming calls generate pages on all sites within the target phone’s location area. If handsets registered with every cell that they monitored, standby battery life would be significantly shortened.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re:

With DAS, femtocells, microcells, repeaters, and up to 7 wireless carriers, there can easily be over 1000 cell sectors in a big city. Any of the above small cells provide unique identifiers that offer rather precise positioning. For example, femtocell (microcell) users can get E911 service by the mandatory provision of their femtocell’s operating address. Every Femtocell also has a GPS built-in to assure that it is operating where expected.

And there are about 240,000 macro cell sites in the USA. Each usually has three sectors. Many have multiple carriers on one tower. Surely big cities have more than 1k potential connection nodes.

Your second point about “location areas” is applicable to roaming and billing systems the carriers use, the HLR and the VLR. The VLR, or visiting location register, is indeed used across a number of cells. However, you are incorrect that the cellphone routinely communicates to a range of cells.

Batter life would, in fact, suffer immensely if the cellphone did anything other than communicate regularly with the strongest signal it could receive, and transmit with the lowest power possible – usually from the closest tower sector antenna.

The cellular network knows which tower is nearest you at most given times, and only when your signal degrades does it seek the next best sector to hand-off the phone.

Furthermore, to have a single handset communicating with multiple towers all the time would be then antithesis of the “cellular” network topology. The whole idea of cellular was to get frequency re-use by NOT having one handset interact beyond the nearest tower. In cellular networks, another phone 5 miles away could use the same frequency to talk to a different tower near it, but not interfere. With each tower sector handling only the calls in its footprint, the system maximizes capacity.

Anonymous Coward says:

Isn’t the real question here, how much of this same type of data do the telcos collect and store at the behest of state and federal governments? Who cares about Apple and Google collecting locations on cell towers and hotspots to improve their services? Contrary to the immediate FUD, they do not do it for nefarious purposes like the telcos spying for the feds. These statements from the telcos are classic deflection – “Ignore the man behind the curtain!”

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