Lawmakers’ Concerns Over Online Privacy Move to Mobile

What exactly does your cell phone carrier know about you? Exactly how and where do they store your data? And just how far are they willing to go to track your whereabouts as you move around town? Inquiring minds, aka lawmakers, want to know.

What exactly does your cell phone carrier know about you?  Exactly how and where do they store your data?  And just how far are they willing to go to track your whereabouts as you move around town?  Inquiring minds, aka lawmakers, want to know.

In the nation’s capital, the concern over online privacy has gone mobile.

The latest target of the lawmakers’ ire is exactly what information the nation’s four major wireless providers – AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile -collect about the location of their users and how it is being used.

Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairmen of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, sent a letter Tuesday to all four carriers in response to a recent New York Times article that highlighted the practices of German mobile firm Deutsche Telekom in tracking one of its customers as he moved throughout his day.

The Times reported that Deutsche Telekom had tracked the longitude and latitude coordinates of the customer, German lawmaker Malte Spitz, more than 35,000 times over a six-month period.

Wireless companies rely on tracking the location of customers’ mobile devices in order to match calls with the nearest cell towers and deliver service, but the congressmen warned that using that information for commercial purposes would run afoul of the law.

“Location, location, location may be the favored currency of the real estate industry, but it is sensitive information for mobile phone users that must be safeguarded,” Markey said in a statement. “Collecting, storing, and disclosing a consumer’s exact whereabouts for commercial purposes without their express permission is unacceptable and violates current law.”

The four carriers were given until April 19 to respond to seven specific questions raised by the lawmakers, including what personally identifiable data the companies collect from their customers; how the data is collected; what tools the firms use to identify the location of their customers; and whether they sell or use for marketing purposes any of the personally identifiable data they collect.

Also on the minds of lawmakers is whether the companies make it a “common practice . . . to inform the customer when data is being collected and how this data is being used.”

Aides to Markey and Barton told news outlets they would wait to see the carriers’ response before deciding how to proceed.

Both lawmakers have been active participants as Congress weighs how to best approach, and perhaps regulate, online privacy.

In February, the two lawmakers sent a joint letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding more information on a feature that would open users’ home addresses, phone numbers and personal information to websites and app developers.

Individually, Markey has pledged to introduce a children’s privacy-tracking bill, while Barton has expressed interest in working with Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and other House lawmakers on a broader privacy measure.