Lawmakers probe wireless carriers on location data

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Two powerful lawmakers have asked the nation's Tier 1 wireless carriers to explain how they collect, store and use the location data generated by subscribers' mobile phones, putting a spotlight on a common wireless industry practice.

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairmen of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, sent letters Tuesday to Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile USA, asking them to explain in detail what personal information they collect, how it is used and whether the location data is used for marketing. The lawmakers gave the carriers until April 19 to respond.

The issue came to light after a recent New York Times story revealed that Deustche Telekom had tracked a German lawmaker's location more than 35,000 times over a six-month period. "Location, location, location may be the favored currency of the real estate industry, but it is sensitive information for mobile phone users that must be safeguarded," Markey said in a statement. "Collecting, storing and disclosing a consumer's exact whereabouts for commercial purposes without their express permission is unacceptable and violates current law."

A provision of the Communications Act requires companies to get express authorization to use location data for marketing purposes, and the lawmakers want to know how the carriers are complying with that provision.

Wireless carriers typically track the location of a mobile device in order to pinpoint its proximity to the nearest cell site with the strongest signal. Calls and data sessions also are tracked for billing purposes. "Other than pinpointing a customer's location for purposes of identifying the strongest signal, does your company use any other mechanisms for determining the location of a customer's mobile phone, such as how frequently the customer checks her email?" the lawmakers asked in the letters. "If yes, what are these mechanisms and what is the purpose of each of them?"

This is not the first time that technology companies have taken heat for the way they track mobile data. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) suffered a black eye last year after it mistakenly collected a trove of personal data over Wi-Fi networks via the roving cars Google uses to create the Street View function in Google Maps. Lawmakers also probed Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) about changes to its consumer privacy policy that authorize the collection and sharing of "precise location data" from the iPhone and iPad.

For more:
- see this Politico article
- see this Broadband Brekafast article
- see this Broadcasting & Cable article

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