AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile Sold User Location Data, FCC Demands Answers

The Federal Communications Commission is demanding answers from the biggest U.S. carriers about their practice of selling location data to third-parties.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel on Wednesday sent letters to the heads of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile asking them to clarify a handful of details about their data harvesting and selling practices, Motherboard reported.

“The public still has very little detail about how much geolocation data is being saved and stored—including in ways that may be far too accessible to others,” the letters state.

Earlier this year, a Motherboard investigation found that the big four telecom companies were selling real-time location data, harvested from cellular customers, to third-party data aggregators like LocationSmart and Zumigo. Worryingly, the report found that some of the data included extremely precise GPS locations.

From there, that location data ended up in the hands of bounty hunters, private investigators, credit tracking companies, and law enforcement entities, among others. In at least one case, a Motherboard reporter was able to track the exact location of a T-Mobile smartphone with only its cellular number.

The bigger concern, of course, was that there was little anyone could do once that data was in the hands of third parties. It could very easily seep into seedier corners of the internet, like black markets on the dark web.

After that story broke, the big four telecom firms came under fire from U.S. lawmakers and consumers for those practices. In the wake of the controversy, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile each pledged to stop selling location data. The jury is still out on whether or when they actually did, however.

That is apparently the question that the FCC letter is hoping to answer. More specifically, the letters ask each telecom firm to provide an “update” on their efforts to stop selling location data — and to confirm when exactly they decided to do so.

The FCC is also inquiring about whether data aggregators had the ability to save and store location data and what exact steps each carrier is taking to ensure that that customer location data is deleted or destroyed.

All four major carriers have been asked to respond to the letter by May 15, 2019.