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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Filed Under: cell site location data, data brokers, location data, privacy

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  1. icon
    united9198 (profile), 20 Dec 2019 @ 10:35am


    I love that everyone gets all excited about cell phone tracking when in fact, your vehicle is also tracking your every movement, grabbing your address book, phone calls, texts, and every other every bit of personal data they can get so it can be sold. No disclosure. No opt-out. No regulation.

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