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New York City Mulling Proposal to Stop Cell Phone Companies from Selling Location Data

— August 6, 2019

Cell carriers say the law would make doing business in different jurisdictions too “complicated.”

New York City is mulling over a bill that’d make it illegal for cell phone companies to share and sell their customers’ location data.

As CNN reports, location data earns big money for telecommunications providers. While most anyone with a cell phone can turn off tracking services, it’s a function necessary for many tasks. Aside from navigation services like Google Maps, even social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram often tap position to advertise events.

According to New York City Councilman Justin Brannan, most consumers have “no idea” that carriers “are cashing in on their private location data by selling it to third parties.”

“It’s Big Brother business, and if we don’t act,” Brennan said, “it’s going to get worse.”

That’s why Brennan introduced a bill to the city council on Tuesday, that’d stop mobile providers from pawning off user location data to third parties. Under its provisions, law enforcement agencies could still request and obtain location data. And requests from other levels of government—be it state, federal or local—could still tap into it.

And, of course, anyone who doesn’t mind sharing location information could still choose to do just that.

The proposal would codify and enhance protections some mobile carriers say they’ve already put in place. CNN notes that AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile pledged last year to stop sending location data to third-party aggregators.

A 2012 image of New York City from the Hudson River, via WIkimedia Commons via Flickr/user:Peretz Partensky. (CCA-BY-2.0).

“We’re doing it the right way to avoid impacting consumers,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere tweeted in January.

Telecom industry groups like CITA have said they’re following developments in New York.

“Crossing city or state lines doesn’t change your wireless experience,” CITA senior vice president Jamie Hastings said. “The laws governing experience shouldn’t change either.”

Other telecom reps and business advocates have said that local legal complications make compliance difficult for companies with a national reach.

But Brennan’s opinion is probably more similar to the line taken by most Americans—that there’s no reason to trust the kinds of promises big companies make.

“Why should we trust them?” Brennan asked. “Once municipalities know they have this tool in their arsenal, hopefully it will have a chain reaction.”

Brennan furthered the point, noting that many industries talk of self-regulation—but not all of them advocate in the best interests of consumers.

“How many times are big corporations going to take advantage of us before we stop taking their word?” he asked. “If these corporations wanted to be transparent about this practice, they wouldn’t have started selling data to shady third parties without a person’s explicit consent in the first place. Why should we trust them now?”

The bill—linked to by CNN—includes preliminary penalties for companies that might someday violate it. Fines range from $1,000 for a single violation up to “$10,000 per day per person whose location data was unlawfully shared.”


New York City to Consider Banning Sale of Cellphone Location Data

New York City might ban wireless companies from selling your location data

Prohibition on sharing location data with third parties.

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