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The Collapse Of Mobile Privacy

Major Wireless Carriers Sell Your Data To Third Parties And No One Is Stopping Them

Think of your personal information as a detailed map of where and how you spend your time:

  • The store where you stopped on your way home from work.
  • The route you took to get there.
  • How long you spent in the store.
  • Which aisles you visited.

What if you shared that map with someone privately and they sold it to another person who wanted to know more about you. You’d feel violated, right?

That’s exactly what’s happening with your personal data. Sometimes you explicitly give a company permission to sell your personal information. But it happens without your consent too.

When third parties have access to data that allows them to create a profile of your identity, preferences and location, these insights can be used to manipulate, compromise and control you. Not only is your privacy jeopardized but so is your safety.

A Scary Prospect Becomes Reality
The prospect of a third party using your personal information and compromising your safety is now a full-blown reality.

Last month, The New York Times, Slate and other news sites reported that AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile have been selling real-time mobile location data to third parties, like LocationSmart. This information can be used track your whereabouts at any time. Even if you don’t have GPS enabled on your phone, your carrier can determine where you are in proximity to the nearest cell towers. LocationSmart’s website also allowed people using its free trial to find the location of any person in its system. LocationSmart has since shut down the service.

This is what a decline in mobile privacy looks like.

In response to the LocationSmart security issue, Sen. Ron Wyden from Oregon stated that a hacker could have used information from LocationSmart’s website to track when you’re not home to rob you or a predator might have tracked your child’s cell phone to understand when they were alone.

The Consumer Becomes The Consumed
If you use AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile, you didn’t agree to let them sell your private location data. You pay them for a service and expect them to keep your personal information private. Similarly, when you hand a cashier your credit card to make a purchase, you don’t expect them to keep your credit card number and give it someone else to use. That’s what’s happening with wireless carriers, and there’s currently no way to opt out of this practice.

For free products, there’s a different exchange that happens. You use a product for its convenience, and in return you give a company your personal data. When you agree to a company’s terms of service in this case, you often give the service provider the right to collect your data and use it as the provider wishes.

Service providers with free services often sell user data to third parties to make money. It becomes integral to their business model, and you become their product. Without you, there’d be no business.

The problem with the free software model is that it’s made people accustomed to handing over personal data without scrutiny. Suddenly, we’re agreeing to give away data that we didn’t even know we were transmitting. Now we’re also encountering businesses that we do pay trying to get in on the action. Our wireless providers shouldn’t be using our personal data as currency, much less personally identifiable location information that most people aren’t even aware they are broadcasting.

How To Fix The Problem
At Keepsafe, we talk a lot about how to keep personal information private, but in this case, wireless carriers have control. There are no U.S. laws regulating surveillance capitalism, the practice of collecting and selling your data. You can take your business elsewhere, but chances are likely that the next wireless carrier you choose will profit off of your data too.

Your only defense is calling for legislation to protect your personal information.

  • Call your representatives and demand that legislation be put in place to stop wireless carriers from sharing your information with third parties without customer consent.
  • Contact your wireless carrier and tell them to stop sharing your information with third parties without your explicit permission. Tell them that you expect this practice to be clearly highlighted in their privacy policy.

Each time our privacy is violated, a tear is made in the fabric of our basic human rights. As these violations continue, our right to privacy deteriorates.

We should have the option to stop the collection and distribution of our personal data. We should always be aware of who has access to our data and how it’s used. And, most importantly, we should be very careful about the personal information we give up.

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