Phone Companies Are Selling Customer Location Data to Bounty Hunters

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Phone Companies Are Selling Customer Location Data to Bounty Hunters

There is a law requiring that every single cell phone have a GPS locator embedded in it in order for 911 to pinpoint your location in an emergency. This technology is so sensitive that it can identify where you are inside of a building. If you’re at all familiar with how American capitalism works, you probably know what comes next. Per Mortherboard:

In January, Motherboard revealed that AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint were selling their customers’ real-time location data, which trickled down through a complex network of companies until eventually ending up in the hands of at least one bounty hunter. Motherboard was also able to purchase the real-time location of a T-Mobile phone on the black market from a bounty hunter source for $300. In response, telecom companies said that this abuse was a fringe case.

In reality, it was far from an isolated incident.

Around 250 bounty hunters and related businesses had access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint customer location data, with one bail bond firm using the phone location service more than 18,000 times, and others using it thousands or tens of thousands of times, according to internal documents obtained by Motherboard from a company called CerCareOne, a now-defunct location data seller that operated until 2017. The documents list not only the companies that had access to the data, but specific phone numbers that were pinged by those companies.

An economic system centered around obtaining profit at all costs is not a moral system. Profit is simply revenue minus costs, and there are a lot of unethical ways to raise revenue and cut costs. While Facebook gets tons of deserved heat for building a billion-dollar empire by selling your data, they are far from the only offenders. The telecom companies have the exact same profit motive as Facebook and possess wildly valuable personal data on its customers—like this location tracker. Even though this feature was mandated by the government in the name of safety, the almighty dollar has bigger plans.

It would be an affront to the pursuit of profits to not share this immensely valuable location data with someone. The phone companies are smart enough to avoid creating a sprawling program selling everyone’s location data, as that would no doubt violate an immense amount of privacy laws. But again, the mindless pursuit of profits at all costs forces companies to look at everything as an asset. Sure, this location feature is supposed to be just for emergencies, but Facebook and Google have essentially created their own nation-states by selling our personal data, and anyone solely concerned about profits would be foolish to not see this tracking service as a potential money maker.

Americans have told ourselves a fairy tale about capitalism. We have been led to believe that competition will always produce the best outcome for the customer, when reality could not be further from the truth. The definition of capitalism is private ownership of the means of production for the express purpose of profit. The first to reap those profits are owners of capital, and the customers generating the profit exist solely to keep the machine moving. As BuzzFeed’s massive employee purge proves, if the revenue is not steady enough to guarantee consistent profits, then labor will be the first cost to be cut.

Capitalism views your salary as an obstacle to profit, and your livelihood as something that solely exists be exploited for capitalism’s gain. Americans have become something like modern-day Israelites, lost in the desert and eschewing moral truths in favor of bowing to a golden idol.

This is a major, major scandal, and if we had a congress that actually cared about representing the people and not owners of major capital, the entire boardrooms of AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile would be dragged in front of the nation to explain why they are extracting profit from a highly sensitive service that exists solely to protect us in emergencies.

Instead, we only have a handful of lawmakers like Ron Wyden who take this massive threat to our privacy seriously, who told Motherboard:

”This scandal keeps getting worse. Carriers assured customers location tracking abuses were isolated incidents. Now it appears that hundreds of people could track our phones, and they were doing it for years before anyone at the wireless companies took action. That’s more than an oversight—that’s flagrant, wilful disregard for the safety and security of Americans.”

Our phones are the most personal parts of our lives. They go where we go. They host what we are interested in. They quite literally capture our lives. This is about as egregious a violation as a phone company can make, and given that this investigation reveals a much larger scheme than Motherboard uncovered last month, the odds are good that telecom companies’ unquenchable thirst for perpetual profits has led to other violations of our basic humanity. This is another example in a seemingly infinite set of how capitalism has no moral center.

Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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