Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T pledge again to close data access after location-tracking scandal

Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T said they were taking steps to
crack down on the misuse of customer location data after an
investigation this week found how easy it was for third parties
to track the locations of customers.

The announcements were the second promise from carriers in the
past year to crack down on data access, and came as lawmakers
questioned carriers’ commitment to protecting sensitive
information.

In a story published on Tuesday,
Motherboard said
it had successfully paid a bounty
hunter $300 to track the location of a cellphone, providing
nothing except the phone’s number. The bounty hunter, the
publication reported, was able to track the phone through data
from a third-party aggregator called Zumigo. That company
provided access from major phone carriers to a
location-tracking service called Microbilt, which reportedly
offered the service to several industries.

After the publication of the story, lawmakers, including Sens.
Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Mark Warner (D-VA), were swift to
criticize phone carriers for not adequately protecting their
customers’ data. FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel also
said in a tweet
that the agency “needs to investigate.
Stat.”

In a statement to The Verge, Sprint said it won’t
“knowingly share personally identifiable geo-location
information” except in response to a legal request, but that
Zumigo and Microbilt had violated the carrier’s privacy
policies. “We took immediate action to ensure Microbilt no
longer had access to Sprint location data, and have notified
Zumigo that we are immediately terminating our contract,” a
spokesperson for the company said.

A T-Mobile spokesperson confirmed to The Verge that
the company has “blocked access to device location data for any
request submitted by Zumigo on behalf of Microbilt,” and said
it was in the process of ending providing access to third-party
data aggregators more broadly. The phone described in the
Motherboard story was tied to the carrier.

CEO John Legere also said
in a tweet
that T-Mobile was “ending location aggregator
work.”

“We’re doing it the right way to avoid impacting consumers who
use these types of services for things like emergency
assistance,” he wrote. “It will end in March, as planned and
promised.”

AT&T said in a statement that it had stopped partnering
with “most” location aggregation services last year. “We are
immediately eliminating the remaining services and will be done
in March,” a spokesperson for the company said.

Verizon said it had terminated its location services agreement
with Zumigo before the story was published. The company said it
has also ended similar arrangements, with the exception of some
roadside assistance companies, which it is also in the process
of ending.

The companies have already made similar pledges in the past.
After another scandal over location tracking last year, all
four major carriers said in letters
to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) that they would end location-sharing
agreements with data aggregators like Zumigo. “Major carriers
pledged to end these practices, but it appears to have been
more empty promises to consumers,” Wyden said in a tweet this
week.

Update, 4:40 PM ET: Includes
statement from AT&T.

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