Wireless could get caught in privacy crosshairs in the 2020s

Wireless professionals understand how easy it is to collect cell phone data. (Getty Images)

According to a survey conducted by Chetan Sharma Consulting, the top three mobile stories of 2020 were the launching of 5G; the tech wars between the United States and China; and privacy backlash. While the first two are fairly obvious, privacy backlash is more ambiguous.

Asked what the respondents might have been thinking when they listed “privacy backlash” as a top concern for mobile in 2020, Sharma said there is not much regulatory oversight as to how consumer data is shared, and there is a growing backlash about the use of consumer data without permission.

For example, in December the New York Times published a column about how easy it was to track the location of President Trump by using cell phone data.

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“The Times Privacy Project obtained a dataset with more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million people in this country,” stated the Times article. “It was a random sample from 2016 and 2017, but it took only minutes — with assistance from publicly available information — for us to deanonymize location data and track the whereabouts of President Trump.”

Even though cell phone data is anonymous, the NYT’s researchers were easily able to hone-in on the president’s movements from data recorded by a smartphone that probably belonged to a Secret Service agent.

“For folks working in the industry it’s not a surprise that you can do that,” said Sharma. “I think there’s this huge misconception if data is anonymized it’s ok.”

He said data pulled from wireless devices and browsing behavior can very quickly be used to build a profile of an individual, including such personal things as when they leave their garage and when they pick up their kids from school.

Sharma chart
Chetan Sharma Consulting

In 2019 AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint became embroiled in a scandal involving location data and bail bond firms. An investigative report from Motherboard found that between 2012 and 2017, location data from carriers had been provided to a so-called location aggregator, which then sold that data to a number of different companies. Ultimately, that data ended up in the hands of bounty hunters and bail bondsmen, enabling them to find the real-time location of mobile phones.

RELATED: Cellphone location data from T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint was sold to bail bondsmen

FCC Commsissioner Jessica Rosenworcel requested (PDF) in May 2019 that all the major carriers provide proof that they had stopped selling their customers’ real-time location data to third-party data aggregators. But it’s still unclear to what extent the carriers have stopped. The Dallas Morning News reported on December 31, 2019 that a privacy group is fighting AT&T in U.S. district court to force the carrier to turn over evidence that it no longer sells customers’ location data collected by mobile phones to third party aggregators.

AT&T issued a statement saying “Location-based services like roadside assistance, fraud protection, and medical device alerts have clear and even life-saving benefits. We only share location data with customer consent and voluntarily stopped sharing it with aggregators months before this lawsuit was filed.”

Sharma said, “Location services are not bad in themselves for things like advertising. But there are a lot of unintended consequences. There is no repercussion until a bad story breaks out. The whole ecosystem not well designed when there are rogue actors. There are no good regulations that protect consumers.”

Microsoft President Brad Smith has been calling for a “Digital Geneva Convention” for a few years. The argument is: nations must agree on privacy guidelines, otherwise the rules won't work. But given the global diplomatic climate, his call hasn’t gained much traction.

The next decade is likely to see a lot of conflict around privacy issues, and the wireless industry will be in the middle of it. “We are actually completely unprepared for some of these challenges because regulatory frameworks do not address any of this,” said Sharma. “The FCC is not designed to address this. My view is we need a new agency, a federal digital commission. Unless we do that, piecemeal is not going to be very fruitful.”

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