An Open Letter to Wireless Carriers from the ACLU on Location Tracking of Cell Phones

November 9, 2011

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is writing to ask that you make a greater commitment to protecting very personal information about your customers. In particular, we are writing to ask that you stop routinely retaining data about your customers’ location history that you happen to collect as a byproduct of how mobile technology works.

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Documents that we have obtained through an open-records request indicate that your companies are retaining the location information of customers for long periods of time. As mobile providers, your service is increasingly becoming an intimate part of Americans’ lives – and over time that will give you access to ever greater information about your customers.

But just because your network has access to these sensitive details does not mean that you should be collecting and storing this information. Location-information records constitute extremely personal data. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit put it in ruling on a key location privacy case, “A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups – and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

Providers of wireless services to the American public should provide customers with the transparency and control that they deserve. Customers are already paying money for their mobile service; they should not be paying with their personal information too.

At a minimum, you should be keeping your customers informed by:

  • Providing your customers with a clear explanation of what information is being kept about their account.
  • Informing your customers when and how their account information is being shared with third parties.
  • Notifying your customers if their information is ever breached or lost.
  • You should also be giving your customers control over their personal information by:

  • Providing them with an easy way to control how long their personal information is kept.
  • In particular, not storing their location data without their explicit affirmative permission.
  • Informing them about government demands for their information whenever legally possible.
  • If you want customers to continue to trust your company with an ever-growing trail of personal information, you need to be the first line of defense when it comes to keeping private information private.

    Mobile service has already brought many new conveniences and efficiencies to American life, and promises even more over time. However, it is vital that privacy is safeguarded, so that people can feel confident that their devices are empowering to them, and not location tracking beacons that can be used against them. 

    As stewards of private data, you have a great responsibility to protect this information and safeguard our trust. We ask you to adopt these policies and make your commitment to carrying out these responsibilities clearer to all of your users. 

    Sincerely,

    The American Civil Liberties Union

     

 

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