Your data is valuable. Just how valuable? Well for around $300, carriers will sell your data to anyone. But for the most part, it is sold to the highest bidder. It’s not just companies like Facebook and Google that are selling our data now, it also includes our wireless carriers that have access to virtually everything about us – even more than Google, since our entire lives are on our smartphones now. And the sad thing is, there’s virtually nothing that consumers can do about it.
According to an in-depth investigation that Motherboard did, it found that your phone’s data is going through many different hands before it gets to someone that wants to use it. In their investigation, they hired a bounty hunter to find the phone, and within a few minutes he was able to find it without having any hacker tools or knowing the past location of the phone. One of the companies being used here is Microbilt. The company had prices on its website for tracking phones. It offers mobile account tracking, location verification and location monitoring, and the more devices you want to track, the lower the price. For “Tier 6” which is for tracking over 20,000 phones, you can get the whole package for $8.42 per phone (those pages have been removed from its website). That’s just a drop in the bucket for people that are looking to track someone. What’s even worse is that Microbilt’s customers will then resell that data to someone else, and there’s no regulation or oversight there, meaning that the tracking of your phone could be falling into the wrong hands.
It is legal for carriers to sell your data
Unfortunately, there is no regulation on what carriers do with your data that it collects. Now what’s interesting here is that it is illegal for carriers to sell your data to law enforcement. One would think that it would be the other way around. Seeing as this information could help law enforcement find people running from the law, whereas the other way around makes it easier for people to stalk someone or hunt them down. Given all of the headlines coming out recently about our data being sold to different companies, it would not be surprising to see some regulation coming up soon in Congress, about how companies are to handle customer data and who it can and can’t sell it too.
In the investigation, Motherboard found that AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile were all guilty of working with Microbilt. Once the publication reached out to each for comment, they all cut ties with Microbilt until an investigation can be completed. Surprisingly, Verizon was not caught in this investigation. When attempting to track a Verizon phone, Microbilt was “unwilling or unable” to track it. So it’s unclear whether Verizon is also selling your data, though it has been caught in the past doing this exact thing. That was many years ago, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened again.
What this means for consumers
It means that no matter what you do, if someone wants to track you and find you, they can do it. And it can be done pretty easily. There’s not much we can do about being tracked in 2019. Even if you turn off location tracking on your phone, whenever you use the internet or make a phone call, it pings your carrier’s network tower with your location. Unlike when Facebook was caught selling data, and users were simply deleting their Facebook account, it’s not that simple when it comes to the wireless carriers. Seeing as you need the carriers in order to use your phone these days. Sure Verizon wasn’t caught in this investigation, but that doesn’t mean that they were not involved here. It could be as simple as Verizon was able to slip under the radar here.
The FCC wasn’t able to comment on the investigation before publication by Motherboard, due to the fact that the government was closed (and still is). But once the government shutdown is over, you can best believe that the FCC is going to be fielding a ton of calls and complaints about this. What consumers can do, however, is write to their member of congress – in both the House and the Senate – about the issue, and also file complaints with the FCC. While this may not actually do anything, if enough people complain to their members of Congress, it will eventually get looked into. Some regulation desperately needs to be put in place here, and that needs to happen sooner rather than later.