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Steve Bannon The Latest To Abuse Consumer Location Data

from the ill-communication dept

However bad Facebook’s privacy issues are, the telecom sector’s have long been as bad, if not worse. That’s been most recently exemplified by the industry’s headaches surrounding the collection and sale of sensitive customer location data. Scandal after scandal has revealed that for the better part of the last decade, cellular phone companies have been collecting and selling your location data to a long line of often dubious companies and organizations, who then did the bare minimum to secure this data. Everyone from law enforcement to stalkers has been allowed to abuse this data, and your privacy.

The latest case in point: a new investigation by Think Progress found that Steve Bannon also managed to get a hold of this data and use it for political targeting purposes. According to the report, Bannon and a group dubbed CatholicVote used the cell-phone location data of people who had visited Roman Catholic churches in Dubuque, Iowa, in 2018 to target them with get-out-the-vote ads:

“If your phone?s ever been in a Catholic church, it?s amazing, they got this data,? Bannon told director Alison Klayman as they sat in his Washington, D.C., home on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections. “Literally, they can tell who?s been in a Catholic church and how frequently,? Bannon added. ?And they got it triaged.”

Given this data is valuable to everybody from political operatives to city planners and marketing departments, the gold rush to sell this data has resulted in an idiotic stampede where privacy and consumer rights were a distant afterthought, if they were thought about at all. And while much of this data is “anonymized,” numerous studies have documented how that doesn’t really mean all that much. When the report authors contacted CatholicVote, their response was, basically, “everybody does it”:

“I encourage you to do some more due diligence on how geo-targeted marketing is being utilized by companies everywhere, including organizations (and many campaigns),? Storen said in the email. ?Finally, we are not interested in commenting further on this story.”

The use of geofenced location data certainly isn’t new. Neither is the idea of targeting religious communities as part of political campaigns (the Michigan GOP did something similar last year). And the organization is right in implying that this practice is widespread and fairly common. It’s not particularly hard to find a data broker middle man willing to do some variation of this for anybody who can pay for it. It’s also worth noting that for all the attention this story got, it didn’t actually seem to work, since translating the data into actual votes is the hard part.

That said, that doesn’t make any of this ethical. Nor does it absolve the cellular carriers and data broker middlemen of peddling private consumer data that, in many instances (like 911 data) isn’t legal to sell. And again, none of these companies are doing a very good job securing this data or preventing it from falling into the hands of those with criminal intent. And “everybody does it” doesn’t absolve the FCC of having done absolutely nothing in terms of confirming cellular carrier promises that they’re no longer selling this data to every nitwit with a nickel and a dream.

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Companies: catholicvote

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Comments on “Steve Bannon The Latest To Abuse Consumer Location Data”

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James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I mean, yes. If the app accesses location services against my wishes, and bypasses the location services indicator to gain 24 hour access to my phone’s location that is a serious concern, but I hadn’t assumed the The Weather Channel data the AC discussed was disregarding the permissions provided. I was assuming this was another ‘other apps do it with your consent so the fact that your phone provider does it isn’t a problem’ argument. Now I am highly interested in the accusation that The Weather Channel is bypassing OS permissions.

TRX (profile) says:

The use of geofenced location data certainly isn’t new

Back when "smart" phones were being developed, this was specifically what the inclusion of GPS hardware was for. Rapturous articles were written about it in the communications and computer industry magazines.

"The system is working as designed." Too bad so few people paid any attention…

That "911 locator" stuff? That was later.

Even before that, the "phone company" – all of them – would sell you a "reverse directory" with all the land lines near any given physical location. Political campaigns were major users of those, too.

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