US wireless carriers store location data, in some cases for years

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Civil rights activists warn that the location data can be used, for example, to track doctor’s visits or political activities.
(Source: Verizon)

Major U.S. wireless carriers store their customers’ location information, in some cases for several years. The companies have admitted this to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They are now to be investigated to determine whether they adequately inform their customers about this practice.

As CNN reports, the FCC had questioned several U.S. wireless carriers in July about their handling of location data. The federal agency released the answers last week.

FCC Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel said, “Our cell phones know a lot about us. That means carriers know who we are, who we call and where we are. That information and location data is very sensitive.”

Cell phones are constantly looking for the cell tower with the strongest signal. When the device logs on to a cell, network operators store the time and duration of that connection. This also provides the approximate location. The U.S. civil rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out that the police can demand access to this data.

Storage period of one to five years

T-Mobile said in its response that location information of U.S. customers is also stored whenever they make phone calls or receive or send text messages. Even when they use data connections, the company stores the location. When emergency calls are made, T-Mobile can determine the estimated longitude and latitude of the phone.

The provider stores location data for up to 24 months. When in connection with emergency calls, it is generally stored for two years.

Verizon stores information on which cell towers a device was connected to for one year. AT&T claims to retain such data for as long as five years.

The providers argue that this data is necessary for the operation of the mobile networks. However, they also refer to regulations according to which they have to obtain certain information, for example, in the case of emergency calls. Customers can only object to certain uses, such as marketing.

Location data can reveal activities

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns that sensitive information can be gleaned from a cell phone’s location. For example, when a person goes to the doctor, what political activities they engage in, who they spend time with, and where they sleep at night.

The discussion about location data has increasingly become the focus of interest in the U.S. in recent months. In June, the Supreme Court overturned the previous abortion law in the USA. Civil rights activists then warned that data collected by apps and online services could pose a danger to women (in German) seeking abortions. The EFF warns that women must assume that data traces can be queried by law enforcement agencies. That’s why the organization advises disabling access to location data for all apps that don’t need it.

However, wireless carriers may also have to hand over location data to law enforcement agencies. AT&T writes, “Like all companies, we are required by law to provide information to law enforcement and other government agencies by complying with court orders, subpoenas and lawful requests for information.” In all cases, the requests would be reviewed. Only in urgent cases, such as kidnappings, would a court order not be necessary for law enforcement to request location information, he said. T-Mobile also said it would only release the data if required by law.

According to the FCC’s notice, the chairwoman has now asked the agency’s Enforcement Bureau to investigate whether wireless carriers are complying with FCC regulations. These required full disclosure to consumers of how location data is used and shared.

Wireless carriers had sold location data

Back in February 2020, the FCC announced fines totalling $200 million against AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. This was due to the fact that the companies had sold location data to data traders. Law enforcement agencies are also said to have obtained this data without a court order. The telecommunications companies had stated that they had stopped selling in response to the investigations.

As the online magazine Motherboard reported in mid-August, the announced penalties have not yet been imposed. (js)