Cell Phone Providers Urged to Stop Collecting Data on Customers’ Movements

by Zack Kaldveer, Consumer Federation of California, Privacy Revolt

In light of the current Supreme Court case regarding the GPS tracking of a suspect by law enforcement, I thought the ACLU’s letter to the CEO’s of the nation’s biggest cell phone providers asking that they "stop routinely collecting and storing data on their customers’ daily movements" was worth a closer look.

The essential argument by privacy advocates, be it the tracking of a cell phone user, or tracking a suspect’s vehicle, is that in either case you should not be more susceptible to government surveillance.

The idea being, no one wants to feel as if a government agent is following you wherever you go – be it a friend’s house, a place of worship, or a therapist’s office – and certainly innocent Americans shouldn’t have to feel that way. The other major distinction between such constant, all pervasive surveillance, from say, simply following a person or suspect, is just that: its constant, over time, and all pervasive…unlike a simple "tailing" of someone by authorities.

Before I share some of the ACLU letter, I want to go a little into the back story regarding why cell phone tracking should be a concern for all of us. Consider:

    In just a 13-month period, Sprint received over 8 million demands for location information;  
    Michigan police sought information about every mobile phone near the site of a planned labor protest;
    Last spring, researchers revealed that iPhones were collecting and storing location information;
    A few months ago the general counsel of the National Security Agency suggested to members of Congress that the NSA might have the authority to collect the location information of American citizens inside the U.S.
    The FBI has used ‘dragnet’-style warrantless cell phone tracking.

And then there’s the Patriot Act. The fact remains that we still don’t know how the government might be using the Act, highlighted by recent statements made by US Senators regarding what they termed ‘secret Patriot Act provisions’. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), an outspoken critic of the recent reauthorization, stated, "When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act they will be stunned and they will be angry." As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee Wyden is in a position to know, as he receives classified briefings from the executive branch.

In recent years, three other current and former members of the US Senate – Mark Udall (D-CO), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Russ Feingold (D-WI) – have provided similar warnings. We can’t be sure what these senators are referring to, but the evidence suggests, and some assert, that the current administration is using Section 215 of the Patriot Act – a provision that gives the government access to "business records" – as the legal basis for the large-scale collection of cell phone location records.

With that, let’s get to why the ACLU urged these CEO’s to change their practices:

The fact is our cell phone companies know more about where we are throughout the day than our closest friends. One of the byproducts of the way cell phones work ‘ staying in constant touch with the nearest cell tower ‘ is that our carriers can tell roughly where we are. And over time, that data is getting increasingly accurate.

But the major carriers ‘ AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint ‘ don’t just know where we are from moment to moment. They also retain detailed data about our location for extended periods of time, as we learned recently when we receivedthis document in response to our national public records request on how the authorities are using location data. The carriers also readily share the information they gather with government agencies and law enforcement‘We pay them money, they provide us with phone and data services. Being tracked everywhere we go was never part of the bargain’

We don’t know exactly how precise the data the carriers retain is, or how they are using it. Often these days there is often an automatic, reflexive impulse to retain data ‘ any and all. But it also seems that the companies are looking at how to monetize this information as they do with other information they gather.Verizon, for example, recently announced that it was selling location information about its customers. Although it is doing so only on an aggregate basis, that still represents a step closer to sharing our own individual movements, which the carriers are surely tempted to do.

Either way, if we roll over and accept this practice, then we’ll be accepting a world that totalitarian dictators can only dream of: an entire population carrying location tracking beacons that precisely record their every movement. This is not something we should be just taking in stride. It’s not something that we have to accept.

The best protection for privacy is for the carriers to not record our locations, even though the phone reveals them, unless we decide to give permission (and not through the fine print in some boilerplate click-through agreement). We should demand nothing less
You can read the ACLU’s letter here and you can sign a petition demanding the same from your cell phone carrier too.