Cell Phone Companies Sell Your Real-Time Location Data

Every month as I prep to write a technology focused article, I look for a story that is the biggest newsmaker to comment on or something that might not be getting the attention it deserves.  The bulk of the past year has focused on lax cybersecurity measures and privacy rights.  This month’s topic is no different, but is probably something that you haven’t heard of because it never hit mainstream media.

Cellular carriers in the U.S. are selling access to your real-time phone location.  Additionally, Securus Technologies, a company that sells this data to law enforcement officials had usernames and passwords breached in May of this year.

Securus primarily advertises services that allow voice and video calls to inmates in correctional facilities across the county.  But a lesser known service they offer is selling location tracking to law enforcement.  They can track anyone’s cellphone without a court order.  Securus advertises phone tracking even if the GPS location tracking is turned off in the phone.

Securus does not obtain the data directly from cell carriers but thru intermediaries that cover about 95% of the country.  The intermediaries typically use the data to help us find a nearby store or track a package.  Securus sells a database tracking system that has records upwards of 200 million users.  Law enforcement is required to submit paperwork for authorization, but according to multiple reports, nothing is ever validated and requests are always rubber stamped.

Another similar service called, Locationsmart, had a bug on their website that allowed real-time location tracking without end user consent.  A “try before you buy” feature allowed you to test the accuracy of the tracking and was proven to find a phone within one block of its true location.  Outside security consultants think it will be very hard for Locationsmart to distinguish legitimate location requests from anyone exploiting the bug on the website.

Technology is far outpacing society’s ability to determine appropriate control measures with our personnel data.  Legal loopholes or non-existent laws have turned what companies can do with your personal data into the “wild wild west”.  Even though The Supreme Court has ruled that installing a GPS tracker on a vehicle requires a warrant or it is a violation of the 4th amendment, 95% of requests for cell phone tracking occur without a warrant.

According to the ACLU, many states do not have laws on tracking cell phones.  Virginia is one of three states that have conflicting laws allowing state personnel to get historical data, such as where you were last week, while federal can get real time tracking.

I believe there are appropriate times for real time tracking.  I recently used the Find My iPhone app to track my wife’s phone that went missing.  There are unquestionably other situations that real time tracking can be very beneficial.  The goal is to ensure those systems cannot be abused by authorized users or breached by hackers.

We live in a culture that gives up privacy for speed or free stuff.  At what point does it go too far? And where will it end?

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