AT&T is cutting off all location-data sharing ties in March

AT&T is ending its location tracking services.

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AT&T says it will no longer sell your location data to aggregation services.

Lawmakers called on the FCC to investigate breach of privacy after Motherboard reported that mobile carriers, like T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T, provided phone location data to third-party trackers. Carriers offered location data for legitimate services, such as fraud prevention and emergency roadside assistance, but the information was frequently abused by data buyers to track people down. 

“Last year we stopped most location aggregation services while maintaining some that protect our customers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention,” an AT&T spokesman said in a statement.  “In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have decided to eliminate all location aggregation services – even those with clear consumer benefits.” 

AT&T will eliminate any remaining services in March. 

AT&T’s move follows similar actions by competitor T-Mobile. Earlier this week, CEO John Legere said in tweets that T-Mobile would also completely end such services by March. A Verizon spokesman cut off nearly every third-party tracker by the end of 2018. It still has four roadside assistance companies that it provides location data to, but the company said they will be transitioned out by the end of March. 

“We have worked hard to implement the commitments we made last summer about location aggregation arrangements.   We have followed through on our commitment to terminate aggregation arrangements and provide location information only with the express consent of our customers,” the spokesman said. 

A Sprint spokeswoman said the company ended its relationship with companies that abuse location data, but it still provides geolocation data with customer consent.

If AT&T’s decision sounds familiar, it’s because AT&T, Verizon and other companies said last June they were cutting off location-data sharing contracts. But the decisions were limited to canceling contracts with specific trackers. Now, AT&T will stop sending data to every service it has provided location data to in the past. 

Like T-Mobile, AT&T marked March as the cut-off date to make sure legitimate services that use location data aren’t disrupted by the change.

Because these companies have made similar statements in the past, lawmakers like Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, remain skeptical of any real changes. 

“For the second time in six months, carriers are pledging to stop sharing American’s location with middlemen without their knowledge. I’ll believe it when I see it. Carriers are always responsible for who ends up with their customers data – it’s not enough to lay the blame for misuse on downstream companies,” Sen. Wyden said. “The time for taking these companies at their word is long past – Congress needs to pass strong legislation to protect Americans’ privacy and finally hold corporations accountable when they put your safety at risk by letting stalkers and criminals track your phone on the dark web.”

Your phone is essentially a tracker in your pocket, providing pinpoint accuracy on your whereabouts anywhere you take the device. While tech giants like Google and Facebook track you, you can always choose to uninstall their apps. Living without phone service is a much greater sacrifice than giving up social media for many people.

Privacy issues in technology have become a concern for lawmakers, who have proposed legislation to ensure people are protected from digital surveillance. Public concerns also spiked in 2018, as a barrage of tech scandals made people aware of how they were being followed online. 

While mobile carriers provide people’s location data with users’ consent, it often falls out of their control once it’s handed over. Motherboard obtained a T-Mobile user’s location through a phone number, thanks to the location aggregator MicroBilt. But T-Mobile said it didn’t have a relationship with MicroBilt, which acquired that data through Zumigo, a T-Mobile partner.

This practice allows nearly anyone to track people from their phone numbers in the US. The FCC has investigated LocationSmart, a company that provides geolocation data from people’s phones. Now, lawmakers are requesting an investigation of mobile carriers who sold this data. 

Originally published at 1:26 p.m. PT on January 10.
Updated at 1:59 p.m. PT:
To add details about phone location data tracking services. At 2:54 p.m.: To include a statement from Sen. Ron Wyden. At 6:08 a.m. on Jan. 11: To add responses from Verizon and Sprint. 

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