by Megha Rajagopalan, ProPublica.
6/27/2012: This post has been corrected. Cellphone companies hold onto your location information for years and routinely provide it to police and, in anonymized form, to outside companies.
As they note in their privacy policies, Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile all analyze your information to send you targeted ads for their own services or from outside companies. At least tens of thousands of times a year, they also hand cellphone location information to the FBI or police officers who have a court order.
But ProPublica discovered that there’s one person cell phone companies will not share your location information with: You.
We asked three ProPublica staffers and one friend to request their own geo-location data from the four largest cellphone providers. All four companies refused to provide it.
Here’s how they responded:
On releasing location data to you: “Verizon Wireless will release a subscriber’s location information to law enforcement with that subscriber’s written consent. These requests must come to Verizon Wireless through law enforcement; so we would provide info on your account to law enforcement — with your consent — but not directly to you.”
On responding to requests from law enforcement: ” Unless a customer consents to the release of information or law enforcement certifies that there is an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury, Verizon Wireless does not release information to law enforcement without appropriate legal process.” A spokesman said being more specific would “require us to share proprietary information.”
On releasing location data to you: “We do not normally release this information to customers for privacy reasons because call detail records contain all calls made or received, including calls where numbers are ‘blocked.’ Because of an FCC rule requiring that we not disclose ‘blocked’ numbers, we only release this information to a customer when we receive a valid legal demand for it.”
On responding to requests from law enforcement: “If the government is seeking “basic subscriber information” (defined in 18 USC sec. 2701, et seq) it can obtain that information by issuing a subpoena. If the government is seeking Sprint records relating to our customers that go beyond “basic subscriber information” then the government must furnish Sprint with a court order based on specific and articulable facts. If the government is seeking customer’s content then it must obtain a warrant based on probable cause.”
On releasing location data to you: “Giving customers location data for their wireless phones is not a service we provide.”
On responding to requests from law enforcement: “We do share data with law enforcement as part of a valid legal process – for example, a court order or a subpoena.”