How the Federal Government Buys Our Cell Phone Location Data
June 13, 2022 | By Bennet Cyphers | Electronic Frontier Foundation |
“Over the past few years, data brokers and federal military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies have formed a vast, secretive partnership to surveil the movements of millions of people. Many of the mobile apps on our cell phones track our movements with great precision and frequency. Data brokers harvest our location data from the app developers, and then sell it to these agencies. Once in government hands, the data is used by the military to spy on people overseas, by ICE to monitor people in and around the U.S., and by criminal investigators like the FBI and Secret Service. This post will draw on recent research and reporting to explain how this surveillance partnership works, why is it alarming, and what can we do about it.
Where does the data come from?
Weather apps, navigation apps, coupon apps, and “family safety” apps often request location access in order to enable key features. But once an app has location access, it typically has free rein to share that access with just about anyone.
That’s where the location data broker industry comes in. Data brokers entice app developers with cash-for-data deals, often paying per user for direct access to their device. Developers can add bits of code called “software development kits,” or SDKs, from location brokers into their apps. Once installed, a broker’s SDK is able to gather data whenever the app itself has access to it: sometimes, that means access to location data whenever the app is open. In other cases, it means “background” access to data whenever the phone is on, even if the app is closed…
Is it legal for the federal government to buy our location data?
In a word, “no.” The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and it requires particularity in warrants. If the federal government wants specific location data about a specific person, it must first get a warrant from a court based on probable cause of crime…
…Fortunately, you can also take steps towards preventing your location data from winding up in the hands of data brokers and the federal government. As a first step, you can disable your advertising identifier. This removes the most ubiquitous tool that data brokers use to link data from different sources to your device. You can also look at the apps on your phone and turn off any unnecessary permissions granted to third-party apps. Data brokers often obtain information via apps, and any app with location permission is a potential vector. Revoke permissions that apps do not absolutely need, especially location access, and uninstall apps that you do not trust.”
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