Privacy: How much does your cell phone provider know about you?

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Yesterday Senator Al Franken announced the release of a new report he requested from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that shows wireless companies are not providing consumers enough information about how they use and share their private location data, and says that federal action would likely help address this problem.

Franken is the Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law. According to a recent press release, Franken maintains…

Americans have a fundamental right to privacy: to know what information is being collected about them and to be able to control whether or not that information is shared with third parties

The GAO reports indicates that this is not currently the case…

Location-based services provide consumers access to applications such as real-time navigation aids, access to free or reduced-cost mobile applications, and faster response from emergency services, among other potential benefits. However, the collection and sharing of location data also pose privacy risks. Specifically, privacy advocates said that consumers: (1) are generally unaware of how their location data are shared with and used by third parties; (2) could be subject to increased surveillance when location data are shared with law enforcement; and (3) could be at higher risk of identity theft or threats to personal safety when companies retain location data for long periods or share data with third parties that do not adequately protect them.

Industry associations have made recommendations, but as of yet those are just recommendations not requirements. Franken goes on in his press release to introduce his Location Privacy Protection Act…

And this report clearly shows that mobile industry companies often fail to respect that right, giving out consumers’ location data without their knowledge or explicit consent. The report makes a strong case that legislation is needed to better protect our privacy-and I’ve authored a bill to do just that. My Location Privacy Protection Act would require companies to get your permission before they get your location information or share it with third parties-a commonsense solution to make sure that consumers’ privacy is protected.

I think a huge part of the issue is getting people to understand how much data is collected and how little control they have over their data. I attended a Cyber Security conference this week (hope to write up the notes over the weekend) and that was a common theme there too – people need to understand the importance.

Last summer I saw a fantastic talk on exactly how much data a mobile carrier has about its users. Perhaps this will help spur an interest in personal privacy…