Your Cell Phone Location Data Can Easily End Up In The Hands Of Criminals And Hackers

Smartphones like the iPhone and Android constantly track a user’s location, and this data is critical for using Google Maps as well as ride sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. Unfortunately, this location data is accessible to cell phone carriers, and apparently from there this data can end up in the hands of 3rd parties like law enforcement, debt collectors, bounty hunters, hackers, and criminals.

Law enforcement can legally use a warrant to obtain a user’s location data, which is already a bad enough breach of privacy. However, in at least one incident T-Mobile did not fully verify a person who claimed to be a U.S. Marshall looking for a fugitive who stole a car. This person ended up being a debt collector, and a criminal since they were impersonating an officer. The debt collector then had full access to the location data of a lady who was behind on her car payments after her husband’s death.

Via an easy to use Google Maps interface provided by T-Mobile, the debt collector found the lady’s house and was knocking on her door in the middle of the night, as well as sitting on her porch. The lady was fearful since her husband had been murdered, and she thought this debt collector sitting on the porch at random times might be connected with the murder. The debt collector also showed up at the lady’s work and harassed her.

As the fear increased, the lady sent her teenage daughter 10 hours away to grandma’s house, and ultimately ended up turning the car in to the dealership and moved away to another neighborhood.

Essentially, this is a case where someone’s life was totally uprooted due to T-Mobile failing to verify the identity of a debt collector who was impersonating a law enforcement officer. And this is just one example of many of how location data can be misused.

Apparently the bail bonds industry, which employs bounty hunters to track down people who are trying to run away after bonding out of jail and skipping court, is a major reason as to why location data is being leaked. Bounty hunters commonly have access to location data, making their job far easier.

A website called Microbilt offered location verification of any cell phone number for $5, and real-time tracking for $13. This location data can then be accessed by literally anyone with a little money, including bail bondsmen, debt collectors, stalkers, criminals, and hackers. It is clear how this compromises the privacy of all smart phone users, and can cause life threatening situations.

Microbilt is not the only company which sells user’s location data. Securus is a company that intended to sell location data to law enforcement officers without a warrant. Aside from revealing that law enforcement can track someone’s location data without a warrant, which may be illegal, Securus was hacked and the location data was leaked, allowing any criminal to obtain the data. Even worse, Securus was easy to hack, and anyone with a little computer knowledge could have done it.

In summary, smartphone location data is critical to the function of apps like Google Maps and Uber, but this is a double-edged sword since the location data is then collected by cell phone carriers and 3rd party firms, and this data can apparently end up in the hands of anyone who can pay. Essentially, an entire economy has sprung up for this since location data can be sold for money, to anyone willing to pay like bounty hunters and criminals. Further, the Securus incident proves that firms which are selling smartphone data do not properly encrypt the data, making it easy for hackers to obtain the data, from which point the data can end up in the hands of anyone. Even the cell phone carriers can easily be tricked into giving the location data to anyone.

In order to have privacy and protect your life it is therefore critical for you to turn off your location data. Many apps on a phone also collect location data, even apps that really do not need such data, so it is important to go through the settings of every app and turn off location data in all of them. This is perhaps a difficult situation, since turning off location data ruins the functionality of Google Maps and ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft. At the least, smartphone users should turn off location data for all the apps that don’t really need location data, since such apps may be selling the location data to 3rd party firms.