US operators belatedly act to protect user location data

AT&T and Verizon announced that they will terminate all remaining commercial agreements that involve sharing customer location data, following a report exposing the country’s mobile carriers’ failure to control data sharing flow.

Jim Greer, a spokesman for AT&T, said in a standard email to media: “Last year, we stopped most location aggregation services while maintaining some that protect our customers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention.” Referring to the Motherboard exposé, Greer continued, “In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have decided to eliminate all location aggregation services — even those with clear consumer benefits.”

This is similar to the position T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere adopted when responding to the criticism from the US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Verizon also announced that the company will sever four remaining contracts to share location data with roadside assistance services. After this Version will need to get customers’ explicit agreement to share their data with these third-party assistance companies. Sprint, which was also caught out by the Motherboard report, is the only remaining nation-wide carrier that has not announced its plan on the issue.

This is all good news for the American consumers who are concerned with the safety of their private data. On the other hand, mobile operators have hardly been the worst offenders when it comes to compromising the privacy and security of customer data. Earlier, Google was exposed to have continued tracking users’ location even after the feature had been switched off, while Facebook has been mired in endless privacy controversies.

Monetising user data is only a side and most likely insignificant “value-add” business for the mobile operators, because they live on the service fees subscrbers pay. But it is the internet heavyweights’ lifeline. This may sound fatalistic but it should not surprise anyone if the Facebooks and the Googles of the world come up with more innovative measures to finance the “free” services we have benn used to.

Lack of transparency could cause problems for digital economy – Here Technologies

New research from mapping and location platform provider Here Technologies claims there is a lack of trust between consumers and technology companies when it comes to sharing and handling of personal information.

The focus of the research was location data, as you might expect from Here, but the results were perhaps more pessimistic than some would have expected. Only 20% feel they have full control over their personal location data, while 76% of the respondents are left feeling stressed or vulnerable about sharing their location data.

“People share location data with app providers because of the many benefits, whether it’s food delivery, hailing a ride, or getting the most out of social media,” said Peter Kürpick, Chief Platform Officer at Here Technologies.

“But, for many, it can be a trade with which they’re uneasy. While the lack of trust is problematic today, we believe that there could be greater challenges down the road if privacy practices continue to be dominated by a click-to-consent approach.”

Transparency is a key term here as there is very little in the technology industry nowadays. A couple of weeks back we commented that a lack of education regarding the use of AI will eventually be a massive concern, and this research supports our concern that the technology companies are ignoring their responsibilities to educate the consumer as the digital economy matures. Education is the key word here, as there hasn’t been enough.

Many app developers or internet companies seemingly feel that they need to hide what data they are collecting off the consumer for fear there would be retaliation or rejection. This is solely down the fact that the consumer has not been taken on the digital journey with the industry. Most consumers don’t understand the trade-off between free services and the release of personal information and now it seems the point of no return has been passed. You can’t pull back the curtain because the digital machines powering the internet revolution have gotten so big and scary.

A good example of this is opening up one of the gaming apps which you have downloaded on your phone; you might be quite surprised how much information you are actually giving away. No one reads the terms of service nowadays and this is a massive problem.

New regulation in Europe, GDPR, will give some control back to the consumer but the consumer will have to be more proactive in managing his/her digital footprint. The big problem here is knowing where your data actually is. How many apps have you downloaded over the years and then deleted? Do you remember the names of the developers? It is likely you have given personal information to these people, but having the right to request deletion is irrelevant if you don’t know where or who to ask.

The research from Here claims consumers would be more open to giving away personal information if there was more transparency and control over how location data is collected and used. People don’t like giving things away blindly, but are usually quite reasonable when the why is explain. Everyone, or at least we hope the vast majority, know there is no such thing as a free lunch; there is always a trade-off but the technology industry has to trust that the consumer is mature enough to accept it.

There are of course examples where the consumer would be happy to share location information, with autonomous driving platforms for example or drones which search for missing people, but these are only a small part of the digital economy. The rest of the industry needs to be more honest with the consumer or the whole idea will come crashing down.

Right now the relationship between the technology industry and the consumer is broken. If the information age is going to flourish more education is needed and the industry needs to trust the consumer to make decisions, not enforce itself upon individuals with a consent or leave policy.