NY Times Shows The Scope Of The Cell Location Data Scandal Nobody's Doing Anything About

from the ill-communication dept

First there was the Securus and LocationSmart scandal, which showcased how cellular carriers and data brokers buy and sell your daily movement data with only a fleeting effort to ensure all of the subsequent buyers and sellers of that data adhere to basic privacy and security standards. Then there was the blockbuster report by Motherboard showing how this data routinely ends up in the hands of everyone from bail bondsman to stalkers, again, with only a fleeting effort made to ensure the data itself is used ethically and responsibly.

Throughout it all, government has refused to lift a finger to address the problem, presumably because lobbyists don’t want government upsetting the profitable apple cart, or because too many folks still labor under the illusion that this sort of widespread dysfunction will be fixed by a clearly broken and unaccountable US telecom market.

Enter the New York Times, which this week grabbed a hold of a massive data set from a broker, highlighting the scope of this problem. The dataset includes 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they traveled around Washington DC, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In this case the data came from a location data company that hoovers the data up from apps, though cellular carriers and appmakers alike have been equally complicit.

The report is part of a 7-part series highlighting just how big the problem has become, and just how little we’re doing about it:

Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. The data was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so. The sources of the information said they had grown alarmed about how it might be abused and urgently wanted to inform the public and lawmakers.

While cellular carriers have promised that they no longer sell that data after a parade of scandals, nobody has independently confirmed that claim. Nor has anybody asked what they’re doing with the data already collected over the last decade. And despite claims of an investigation at the FCC, there are indications the agency is dragging its feet on the inquiry to help run out the clock on the statute of limitations for carrier culpablity. This is the ultimate cost of regulatory capture: profits trump all else, including basic, fundamental human rights.

While carriers and data brokers continue to say this is all just fine because people consent to be tracked and the data is anonymized, it’s nice to see the Times point out that studies routinely highlight that anonymized data is far from anonymous. The Times found it wasn’t particularly difficult to identify individuals and build detailed profiles based on their movement data:

Reporters hoping to evade other forms of surveillance by meeting in person with a source might want to rethink that practice. Every major newsroom covered by the data contained dozens of pings; we easily traced one Washington Post journalist through Arlington, Va.

In other cases, there were detours to hotels and late-night visits to the homes of prominent people. One person, plucked from the data in Los Angeles nearly at random, was found traveling to and from roadside motels multiple times, for visits of only a few hours each time. While these pointillist pings don?t in themselves reveal a complete picture, a lot can be gleaned by examining the date, time and length of time at each point.

The perils of what we’re building here should be obvious. And it’s fairly obvious that even bigger scandals on this front are waiting in the wings until we collectively demand some basic privacy guidelines for the internet era. This again highlights the myopia in DC policy circles, which have been focused in recent years almost exclusively on the perils of “big tech,” while “big telecom” gets a free pass despite engaging in the exact same (or worse) behavior.

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Comments on “NY Times Shows The Scope Of The Cell Location Data Scandal Nobody's Doing Anything About”

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21 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "government has refused to lift a finger"

the "government" (police, prosecutors, NSA, FBI, Congressmen, etc) LOVE this cellfone surveillance technology … and will fight to keep it (at least for widespread government use).

BIg Mistake to assume this problem is purely the fault of the supposed greedy/malicious/lazy cell companies.

The government actively mandates various GPS/911 technology in cellfones that should be an optional choice by consumers — but forces everyone into a tighter surveillance net.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Isocrates (profile) says:

Easy to spot sensitive locations

With this much information you get to see some interesting things about sensitive locations, like the White House or Pentagon.

1) where people are shows you the internal hallways of the building and main gathering points.

2) where people aren’t but should be shows you where signals are being blocked or people aren’t allowed to bring devices.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

The perils of what we’re building here should be obvious. And it’s fairly obvious that even bigger scandals on this front are waiting in the wings until we collectively demand some basic privacy guidelines for the internet era. This again highlights the myopia in DC policy circles, which have been focused in recent years almost exclusively on the perils of "big tech," while "big telecom" gets a free pass despite engaging in the exact same (or worse) behavior.

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Privacy is as dead as copyright.

We’re moving to a new world where the internet has unmasked all kinds of horrible behavior. #metoo is taking out sexual harassment, viral videos are doing the same to bullying. At some point even a verbal outburst will get someone locked up for six months, because we will no longer tolerate even minor aggression. "Red flag" laws will take over, and will evolve into a nonviolent, smarter species that not only doesn’t care about privacy, but welcomes the scrutiny.

This terrifies people like Masnick and his lawyer buddies, who never thought that what was done in the dark would be brought to the light. The glib responses (glibness is one of the boxes on the psychosis checklist btw) that alternate with the verbal abuse show just how much of a nerve has been struck in these people, as they realize they are going the way of the Enteledon.

aerinai (profile) says:

Removing a name doesn't make data anonymous...

If each and every point were given a unique identifier, not each DEVICE, then it could be considered ‘more’ anonymized. Anything that tracks the movement of a person to their work, to their home, to their after-hours hookup is not anonymous. Full. Stop.

Now if each and every ‘ping’ were anonymous (no key tying them together), you would be safe in most cases, but not all. Think of it in a rural setting where the dataset is small. You could tell when a certain individual was hosting a party (multiple pings from the same location). You could tell who was home and who wasn’t… The to-the-square-foot-level tracking is really problematic of this data regardless of how it is ‘anonymized’.

Anonymous Coward says:

Data mining whether by cell phone or some other means is unlikely to be addressed till a scandal hits the politicians to make them uncomfortable enough to do something about it.

It’s not just cell phones, states are taking your data from the DMV and selling it too to those who will pay the price to get the data. Texas for instance you can’t opt out. There’s no means to do so.

The whole mess has been contaminated by advertising, willing to pay under the idea that it will give them better data to entice sales. Shame of it is, I won’t buy just because I see an ad. I have to need some item and then if I do, I know how to search to find who sells what, without waiting for some ad to tell me what I’m interested in or try to sell me a second one after I’ve already purchased what I sought.

All that doesn’t even address the privacy issue of tracing everywhere you go, and where you spend every minute of the day.

R/O/G/S says:

targeted....

Well, its time to start targeting those who use us for target practice.

I think its great that the public can now track the SS and that other SS, the FBI and those who make a living manufacturing terrorists.

Its not just Germans talking about Stasi 2.0, because targeted individuals of organized gang stalking, aka stalking BY the police and Big Tech, have been saying this for decades.

R/O/G/S says:

targeted....

Well, its time to start targeting those who use us for target practice, using the same tools.

I think its great that the public can now track the SS and that other SS, the FBI and those who make a living manufacturing terrorists.

Its not just Germans talking about Stasi 2.0, because targeted individuals of organized gang stalking, aka stalking BY the police and Big Tech, have been saying this for decades.

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