Cell phone privacy

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Cell phone privacy

Wesley Kwok, Section Editor

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Ever wonder what cell phone companies do with the personal data consumers provide to them? Well, most cellular service providers have their privacy and disclosure statements prominently displayed on their websites – within a one-hundred page document in eight point font and brimming with so much legalese that even some lawyers fail to comprehend it. Essentially, most of cellular service customers have no idea what happens to their data, and companies have taken advantage of this to a horrendous extent by selling their customer’s information to shady third party aggregators, companies that specialize in collecting information, that in turn make that private information available to almost anyone with money and an internet connection. Undoubtedly, there should be more regulations on what cell phone companies can do with a customer’s data, and their policies should be transparent to the average consumer.

In 2018, consumers found out how insecure private data could be through Securus, a company that empowered law enforcement to quickly track the whereabouts of essentially any smartphone in the United States through the data aggregator LocationSmart, which derived its data from providers like Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. After facing severe public backlash because of a supposed breach in privacy, most of the companies promised to stop selling consumer data to third parties. But a Motherboard investigation in January found that while Verizon upheld its pledge to stop selling data to third parties, T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T broke their promise. Journalist Joseph Cox paid a phone “bounty hunter,” who claimed he could locate most of the phones in the United States, three hundred dollars to locate a consenting individual in Canada who used T-Mobile. The hunter quickly and accurately tracked the phone to a neighborhood in Quebec.

The Motherboard investigation and the Securus incident last year shows how little awareness consumers have regarding what happens to their data. And while location tracking is useful for some private industries (though still questionable at best) like roadside assistance, property managing, and bounty hunting, stalkers and criminals could use this sensitive information for a plethora of malevolent actions. After another roar of outrage by the public, these three cell phone providers promised to change – again. But will they really, considering how much money they make off terabytes of private data? In order for there to be concrete protection of personal data in this digital age, companies should be more honest with what they do with their consumer’s personal information, and the only way for that to happen is through public awareness and government initiative. Although there has been legislation proposed for safeguarding private data, the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commision, which is in charge of regulation in this field, has been reluctant to push for change, and while reform seems to be on the way, it probably will be a few years down the road at best.

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