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All major U.S. carriers give your real-time location info to third parties

It's hard to believe that much of anything is truly private these days. Between smartphones, the internet, and everything else, so much of our data and lives are on full display for various businesses to see. Recently, it was discovered that all four of the major United States carriers provide your real-time location info to third-parties thanks to a loophole in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

How'd this matter come to light? Between 2014 and 2017, former sheriff Cory Hutcheson used a service called "Securus" to track the location of a judge and members of Missouri's Highway Patrol around 11 different times. Securus is a service that allows police officers to facilitate calls made to inmates, but it can also be used to pinpoint the location of a cell phone in a matter of seconds.

Securus obtains this location info from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, but according to ZDNet, it does so through a middle-man called "LocationSmart."

LocationSmart can pinpoint your real-time location in about 15 seconds.

LocationSmart is based out of California, and after it obtains this data from carriers, sells it to companies like Securus. The location data LocationSmart gets is based on tower information it gets from carriers, and while this process is slower than using GPS, it works in the background without your knowledge and has little-to-no impact on battery life. LocationSmart touts it can pinpoint someone's real-time location in just 15 seconds.

In other words, carriers are letting LocationSmart have your real-time location information so it can then share it with other third-parties. Is any of this even legal?

Unfortunately, it sure is.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act prevents carriers from sharing user location to the United States government, but there aren't any restrictions in place on other companies. As noted by Kevin Bankston, the Director of New America's Open Technology Institute, this is "one of the biggest gaps in US privacy law."

If you're looking for a silver lining, LocationSmart says that companies that use its services must get "explicit consent" from users before obtaining their location – whether it be through an app or text. However, there are other instances where it's implied that a user wants their location shared and this step can be avoided (such as when someone calls a towing company to pick up their car).

The FCC's been asked to investigate the matter by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, but it remains to be seen what actions (if any) will be taken.

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36 Comments
  • so why don't they use it to find stolen phones and arrest the thief immediately?
  • Probably cause they are making money since most people will need to get a new phone. In the end of the day, it's about money. Just my guess. I could be wrong tho
  • No money in i
  • That`s not their business to do it.
  • Anyone know If there's an APK or a service associated with this? I'd like to try to disable it.
  • Only true way to disable it is to take the battery out of your phone. Because even with your cell phone off they can still ping towers....
  • That, or put it in the fridge or a Faraday cage.
  • *microwave
  • I would like to disable this as well
  • Impossible... The CIA will, and can, listen to or record everything you do with your phone. Your only option.... Is to not use a cell phone.
  • You can't disable it because it isn't an app that runs on your phone. The data is generated by your phone communicating with the towers. It has to do this so it can be located on the network so calls and messages can be routed to it.
  • Privacy is an illusion folks.
  • If they are tracking me, they are going to be very bored :)
  • Hahahaha me to.
  • In Canada, The spy agency (CSIS) without warrant can use IMSI catchers or stingrays to collect mobile and internet data. Ie. CSIS has a standing court approval to listen or record anything at any time. CSIS requires a warrant to obtain the location of mobile phones. Mobile service providers only will provide mobile location data if a warrant is given. In cases of medical emergency or a crime, they will release location info. The final release is in house, in the the case of Bill collections. The American law mentioned in the article is not surprising.
  • I guess all those crazy aluminum foil hat ppl I help who were saying "the government is tracking us all" weren't crazy after all..
  • Our society polices itself.. They were right about a lot of things.
  • I for one welcome our robot overlords
  • I should switch exclusively to iOS because Apple doesn't allow this...at least I don't think they do.
  • This has nothing to do with the phone you use. This data is being generated by the phone communicating with the towers, which it has to do so it can be located on the network for call and message delivery.
  • Hahaha... Apple phones talk to cell towers too... And you have an equivalent privacy.... None.
  • Don't care
  • And they are worried about the Chinese.
  • Should be worried about both.
  • The only "they" who are worried about the Chinese is the government. Kinda makes you wonder why they're worried. I'm betting it has nothing to do with our best interests.
  • I can save em some time....I am home 90% of the time :)
  • I think the legality question has yet to be answered until this practice is challenged in court. Using a private company as a middle man might not violate the letter of the Act, but clearly goes against the intent. I'm hoping the ACLU or EFF takes up the task.
  • Well, I hate this. And I wonder how much carriers earn from selling our info to third parties. I'd rather have a higher phone bill and more privacy.
  • Once again, silence from the Congressional Democrats who are bought for and paid for by BIG DATA -- especially the prominent screachers in the SF Bay area...The same ones that were up in arms about what Snowden revealed...
  • Silence from the GOP, as well. Oh, wait, two of the GOP's favorites from SCOTUS just wrote an opinion claiming that a 50+ year old precedent concerning "reasonable expectation of privacy" is invalid and should be overruled. They want to make is so we have absolutely NO expectation of privacy. Ever. So, your failed indictment of "Congressional Democrats" is ludicrous.
  • No, it's not ludicrous! I never gave the GOP a free pass. Not ONE member of the CA Democratic Congressional Congress -- especially the loud mouths from the Bay Area -- have called out Google, Facebook, Uber, Air BNB, etc. for ANYTHING regarding their data practices. Nor have they been on Google's or Facebook's case about their advertising practices in regards to accepting political ads without verifying the identity of the buyer. Yet they yell "Russians" and all kinds of crazy stuff all day long! I have to give the tech guys credit -- they figured out a way to buy the D's silence all the while revamping large segments of the U.S. economy. The D's never miss an opportunity to bash BIG CORPORATIONS -- with the exception of the tech companies which are largely based in CA!
  • Sure thing, pal. Guess we can't hear them over the din of all of that Republican outcry on this matter. You're a GOP tool.
  • Neither party is honest or moral.
  • C'mon, how dare you credit any Congressman for knowing minutiae of the bills they pass?!?! Your lawmakers don't read the bills, much less debate them in America.
  • I noticed how you said Democratic Senator. I guarantee if he were Republican you wouldn't have mentioned his party affiliation. I don't subscribe to either party as I think they are the same so....
  • Dem buns of sitches!