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June 25, 2018updated 28 Jun 2018 3:41pm

US carriers struggle to regain poise after geolocation data scandal

By GlobalData Technology

Last week, all four of the largest US wireless carriers – Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile – said they will stop providing information and end commercial relationships with unscrupulous data brokers.

For US consumers, the fact that these relationships existed in the first place is disconcerting news.

This latest scandal broke after The New York Times revealed that US carrier geolocation data was being abused by a prison communications provider, Securus. The company had acquired this data from a third-party data broker which was, to all intents and purposes, exposing live wireless user geolocation data. This latest case has now moved to a federal court as the Mississippi County sheriff has been charged with tracking the cellphones of inmates and officers, without court orders.

Raising number of privacy violations

The exposure of these practices would indicate that anyone with money can track just about anyone’s movement via their smartphone’s location – an outcome which, in markets such as the US and EU, amounts to a serious abuse of privacy.

This latest story is just one in a number of data scandals that are making consumers more aware than ever about the value of their digital footprint, and the need to protect it.

While the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal might seem a thing of the past, companies are having to review their practices as consumer awareness raises.

Data is the modern commodity

It is acceptable for over-the-top players such as Facebook and Google to monetise end-user data, within certain reasonable and transparent restrictions, and with full end-user approval. Without a subscription model, these companies have to make money, after all – and no one can deny the power and utility of their free-to-use services.

But wireless carriers are different. They do charge for their services with a subscription or prepaid model. Does that mean they can monetise end-user data with third parties in the same way?

On paper, no – not without end-user permission. And that’s the line that most carriers have been promoting, until now.

But the full truth, of course, is more complicated than that. Almost all wireless carriers, worldwide, are subject to obligations to expose end-user data, when required, with police, anti-terrorist and other national security agencies.

The problem, as we’ve already seen from the Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica debacle, is that once sensitive end-user data gets out of a system, it can be quickly hacked, abused and exploited for a number of different purposes.

If data is indeed the ‘new oil’ of the 21st Century, we’re going to have to get a whole lot better at understanding the nature and extent of its black market.

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