The largest wireless carriers in the United States not only know where you are every time you make a phone call or use your data connection, they routinely retain that location information for months, and in some cases even years, and they provide it to law enforcement whether you like it or not, according to the charts of the operators that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC, for its acronym in English) made public last week.

From data on which cell towers your smartphone has been communicating with to your specific GPS coordinates, your smartphone constantly broadcasts a wealth of information about your whereabouts, charts from AT&T, Verizon and other carriers show.

For example, T-Mobile retains the detailed latitude and longitude coordinates of devices on its network for up to 90 days, and less granular cell-site location data for up to two years, the company told the FCC in a letter dated Tuesday. August 3rd. Verizon said it retains location data for up to a year, while AT&T said it can retain cell site data for up to five years.

The letters to the FCC point out how telecommunications companies, and not just technology platformscooperate with government requests for personal information, an issue that has received intense scrutiny in recent months as new state laws restricting abortion have prompted critics to worry about location data cell phones used to prosecute abortion seekers. In addition to sending official data requests to companies, government agencies have also resorted to simply buying personal data on the open market, a practice that US lawmakers have questioned the authorities this year.

Privacy advocates have said sensitive data can reveal whether a person may have visited an abortion clinic or sought other reproductive care, even if the location data was collected simply for the purpose of facilitating an unrelated call or a mobile web search at that time.

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Potential risks of saving data and location information

“Governments collect information for many reasons. But too often, state-collected data is misused and weaponized for other purposes,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, wrote. in a blog post this spring.

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel did not explicitly mention potential risks related to reproductive care or abortion in your letters to more than a dozen major US wireless carriers in July. But the inquiries came less than a month after the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down federal abortion rights in June, and amid heightened scrutiny of the many companies that handle location information and how could they respond to law enforcement requests for such data in connection with abortion trials.

“Given the highly sensitive nature of this data, especially when location data is combined with other types of data, how this data is stored and shared with third parties is of the utmost importance to consumer security and privacy,” he wrote. Rosenworcel at the time.

Last week, Rosenworcel added that he called the FCC’s Office of Enforcement to investigate whether wireless carriers are doing enough to tell customers how their information is handled.

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Why do telephone operators collect this data?

There are many reasons why a wireless service provider collects subscribers’ location information, the companies told the FCC. One main reason is simply to operate the network as consumers would expect. But there are also other reasons. For example, FCC rules require operators to provide detailed information to 911 dispatchers in an emergency, down to the likely elevation of a device so first responders can more easily locate someone in need if they are in the fifth floor of a building.

Carriers also collect location data for purposes that are not directly related to providing wireless services. Verizon, for example, told the FCC that it may use location data as part of an offer to third parties that may “develop information to help estimate traffic patterns during the morning rush hour or how many customers go to a store.” retail”. AT&T told the FCC that it can collect location information to deliver targeted ads to subscribers.

While in some cases consumers can opt out of this data collection, such as with AT&T’s advertising program, they generally cannot opt ​​out of sharing their location data with law enforcement, the carrier’s letters said. .

“Like all companies, we are required by law to provide information to law enforcement and other government entities by complying with court orders, subpoenas, and legal discovery requests,” AT&T wrote to the FCC. “In all cases, we review the applications to determine if they are valid.”