You may already be aware that the cell carriers provide pin-point location data to various data brokers and advertisers, as well as law enforcement with a warrant. If you aren’t, you might want to stop and read this blog post and the article I refer to therein. What you might not have suspected was that this very confidential data is available to people who aren’t just interested in selling you stuff, but may be interested in your physical location for more nefarious reasons. Joseph Cox of Motherboard/Vice Magazine gave $300 to a bounty hunter to locate a target phone, which was done in a matter of minutes. Though explicit consent was given by the target for the purposes of this investigation, that permission wasn’t required for the deed to be performed. In other words, if someone wanted to find you (by means of tracking your smartphone), all they need is a few hundred dollars and the right contact.
What this means for you
How does this happen? Basically, the cell phone carriers are selling to companies called “data aggregators”, who then sell to vertical specialists that service specific industries, like bail bondsmen. The cell carrier usually has some form of data privacy and consent policy in place governing its first tier vendor relationship, but obviously have less control the further the data gets away from them. Not that I’m implying the bail industry is more shady than any other, but this was the avenue used by the Motherboard reporter. Unfortunately for us, we live in an country that doesn’t regulate data sales, despite it being one of the most profitable industries in modern history. There are many reasons for this, chief among them the fact that data doesn’t have a tangible form and is trivial to transport thanks to the Internet which also makes it hard to trace, on top of a government that still largely doesn’t understand how technology works, and large corporations who answer to investors and not regulators.
In case it wasn’t already clear, there’s not a lot you can do about your cell carriers data sales policy except to not use their services, which, unless you are a professional Luddite, isn’t very practical in this day and age. Aside from making sure you are voting for congress critters that are technologically savvy and pursuing your privacy interests, knowing that your location isn’t private (and probably won’t be in the foreseeable future) while carrying a smartphone is about as good as it gets. And remember, just because you turn off location tracking does NOT mean that the cell phone carriers don’t know your location. If your phone is on, they know where you are, regardless of your settings, and what they do with that information is, ironically, increasingly hard to track.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles from FreeDigitalPhotos.net