Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Hundreds of Bounty Hunters Had Access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint Customers’ Real-Time Location Data for Years

Joseph Cox, Vice:

Often CerCareOne’s phone location service — known in the industry as a phone ping — would use data from cell towers and provide a Google Maps-style interface to the bounty hunter of the device’s approximate location.

But some of the data available to CerCareOne customers included a phone’s “assisted GPS” or A-GPS data, according to documents and screenshots of the service in action provided by two independent sources. A-GPS inherently relies on telecom company information — it uses a phone’s GPS chip in conjunction with information gleaned from the telecom network to locate a phone. It is used to locate cell phones that dial 911 in an emergency and it operates faster than a phone’s GPS chip alone, which can sometimes take minutes to connect to a satellite, according to telecom filings with the Federal Communications Commission. […]

Blake Reid, associate clinical professor at Colorado Law, told Motherboard in an email that “with assisted GPS, your location can be triangulated within just a few meters. This allows constructing a detailed record of everywhere you travel.”

“The only reason we grant carriers any access to this information is to make sure that first responders are able to locate us in an emergency,” Reid added. “If the carriers are turning around and using that access to sell information to bounty hunters or whomever else, it is a shocking abuse of the trust that the public places in them to safeguard privacy while protecting public safety.”

This is a damning report. Even though all cell carriers involved pointed to commitments they had made previously to discontinue location sharing deals with third parties — which, by the way, I still doubt — these reports paint a picture of an industry repeatedly undermining basic consumer trust. As long as individuals’ data can be traded and sold with virtually no oversight, this kind of thing will keep happening. It’s unconscionable that little effort has been made to regulate an industry that cannot stop itself from stooping to the absolute lowest ethical level and still finding room below it.