How Cell Carriers Profit from Vehicle Data

March 8, 2018 Published by

If you somehow didn’t already know or suspect it, let’s just put this right out in the open—your cell phone provider is selling as much information about you as it can, including your vehicle location information.

If you take a close look at your cell phone contract, you’ll likely find some language that says something like, “We do not sell your personal information.” This is in just about every Terms of Service provided to cellular customers, but this is a misleading statement. The company will not sell information determined by law to be “personal information,” such as phone numbers, addresses or Social Security numbers. However, other pieces of information, such as birthdays or ZIP codes, are absolutely fair game to sell.

There has been some debate over whether location information constitutes personal information, but right now, these companies are legally able to sell information pertaining to your location, which is determined by the closest cell tower to your location. They are able to sell this information as long as “personal” data is not included with it.

Is location information personal data?

Verizon has a Precision Market Insights program that says it can develop thorough demographic breakdowns of every person in a football stadium on a single night. But is something like this truly possible while guaranteeing the anonymity of personal information?

In one study by a team from MIT, data scientists were able to determine the identities of 95 percent of people in a European cellular carrier’s data set using just four location data points. These data points could be check-ins on Foursquare, tweets with geolocation stamps or just about anything else. All it took was four different location data points for the researchers to easily be able to determine the identities of a vast majority of people in the study.

So while the information is technically anonymized, the study would seem to indicate that it is not hard for a person with the skills and resources to do so to figure out exactly who you are and where you are.

This might be a bit much for an everyday person to become capable of, say, stalking an ex. But for a company with massive amounts of resources and large employment bases, they could easily cross the line when it comes to personalization of advertisements.

The question is, at what point does this process become more regulated? There are certainly ethical questions about using this type of technology to uncover a person’s identity and location, but right now companies are able to hide behind the legality of anonymization, for as much good as that does for the people whose information is being “anonymized.”

There are few regulations to abide by in the industry right now, as many of these companies aren’t restricted by the FCC regulations that impact carrier data. We’re still in the “wild west” era of this technology, so it will be interesting to see what steps lawmakers take moving forward.

Send us your questions today about data anonymity and how vehicle GPS monitoring systems can be used.

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This post was written by Malcolm Rosenfeld

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