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AT&T is cutting off all location-data sharing ties in March

After senators called the practice an invasion of privacy, the mobile carrier is ending the service.

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AT&T is ending its location tracking services.
Getty Images

AT&T says it will no longer sell your location data to aggregation services.

Lawmakers called on the FCC to investigate breach of privacy after Motherboard reported that mobile carriers, like T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T, provided phone location data to third-party trackers. Carriers offered location data for legitimate services, such as fraud prevention and emergency roadside assistance, but the information was frequently abused by data buyers to track people.

AT&T will eliminate any remaining services in March.  

"Last year we stopped most location aggregation services while maintaining some that protect our customers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention," an AT&T spokesman said in a statement.  "In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have decided to eliminate all location aggregation services -- even those with clear consumer benefits." 

Your phone is essentially a tracker in your pocket, providing pinpoint accuracy on your whereabouts anywhere you take the device. And carriers have been selling your phone number's geolocation data to a number of industries, often for advertising purposes. But while you can choose to uninstall apps from tech giants like Google and Facebook, which also track you, relatively few consumers can delete their phone service. 

That's why lawmakers considered mobile carriers selling location data such an invasion of privacy: the massive potential for personalized tracking from a device many people can't do without, combined with shady services that mean people don't even know if they're being followed. The technology has been abused for months, and carriers have felt more pressure to end the practice.

That doesn't mean that your phone isn't still tracking you and selling that data, as thousands of independent apps still have that capability.  

The carrier's move follows similar actions by competitor T-Mobile. Earlier this week, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in tweets that his company would completely end such services by March.

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Verizon, meanwhile, cut off nearly every third-party tracker by the end of 2018, a spokesman said. It still has four roadside assistance companies to which it provides location data, but the company said they'll be transitioned out by the end of March. 

"We have followed through on our commitment to terminate aggregation arrangements and provide location information only with the express consent of our customers," the spokesman said. 

Sprint has ended its relationship with companies that abuse location data, but it still provides geolocation data with customer consent, according to a spokeswoman.

If AT&T's decision sounds familiar, it's because AT&T, Verizon and other companies said last June they were cutting off location-data sharing contracts. But the decisions were limited to canceling contracts with specific trackers. Now AT&T will stop sending data to every service to which it's provided location data in the past. 

Like T-Mobile, AT&T marked March as the cut-off date to make sure legitimate services that use location data aren't disrupted by the change.

Because these companies have made similar statements in the past, lawmakers like Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, remain skeptical of any real changes. 

"For the second time in six months, carriers are pledging to stop sharing Americans' location with middlemen without their knowledge. I'll believe it when I see it," Wyden said. "Carriers are always responsible for who ends up with their customers data – it's not enough to lay the blame for misuse on downstream companies,"

Wyden said Congress needs to pass legislation to protect Americans' privacy and to hold corporations accountable.

Privacy issues in technology have become a concern for lawmakers, who have proposed legislation to ensure people are protected from digital surveillance. Public concerns also spiked in 2018, as a barrage of tech scandals made people aware of how they were being followed online. 

While mobile carriers provide people's location data with users' consent, it often falls out of the carriers' control once it's handed over. Motherboard obtained a T-Mobile user's location through a phone number, via the location aggregator MicroBilt. But T-Mobile said it didn't have a relationship with MicroBilt, which acquired that data through Zumigo, a T-Mobile partner.

This practice allows nearly anyone to track people from their phone numbers in the US. The FCC has investigated LocationSmart, a company that provides geolocation data from people's phones. Now lawmakers are requesting an investigation of mobile carriers who sold this data. 

First published Jan. 10, 1:26 p.m. PT.
Updates, 1:59 p.m.:
Adds details about phone location data tracking services; 2:54 p.m.: Includes a statement from Sen. Ron Wyden; Jan. 11 at 6:09 a.m.: Adds responses from Verizon and Sprint. 

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