Mobile phone service providers log data about your locations and store it for years. In the event of a criminal investigation, they routinely release such data to police; it is also provided — with personal information removed — to companies for advertising purposes.
But, according to ProPublica, you can rarely gain access to your own location data.
The organization asked its staffers to request such information from their cellphone providers. Here’s what they discovered:
On releasing location data to you: “Verizon Wireless will release a subscriber’s location information to law enforcement with that subscriber’s written consent. These requests must come to Verizon Wireless through law enforcement; so we would provide info on your account to law enforcement— with your consent— but not directly to you.”
On responding to requests from law enforcement: “Unless a customer consents to the release of information or law enforcement certifies that there is an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury, Verizon Wireless does not release information to law enforcement without appropriate legal process.” A spokesman said being more specific would “require us to share proprietary information.”
On releasing location data to you: “We do not normally release this information to customers for privacy reasons because call detail records contain all calls made or received, including calls where numbers are ‘blocked.’ Because of an FCC rule requiring that we not disclose ‘blocked’ numbers, we only release this information to a customer when we receive a valid legal demand for it.”
On responding to requests from law enforcement: “If the government is seeking ‘basic subscriber information’ (defined in 18 USC sec. 2701, et seq) it can obtain that information by issuing a subpoena. If the government is seeking Sprint records relating to our customers that go beyond ‘basic subscriber information’ then the government must furnish Sprint with a court order based on specific and articulable facts. If the government is seeking customer’s content then it must obtain a warrant based on probable cause.”
On releasing location data to you: “Giving customers location data for their wireless phones is not a service we provide.”
On responding to requests from law enforcement: “We do share data with law enforcement as part of a valid legal process – for example, a court order or a subpoena.”
On releasing location data to you: “No comment.”
On responding to requests from law enforcement: “For law enforcement agencies, we release customer information only when compelled or permitted under existing laws. This includes, but is not limited to, circumstances under which there is a declaration from law enforcement of an exigent circumstance, as well as other valid legal process, such as subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders.”
The phone companies hand over cellphone location information to police and the FBI thousands of times each year when a court order is provided.
ProPublica’s observation comes as the government is increasingly looking to use mobile phone location data to bolster prosecutions after a Supreme Court ruling that said the government must obtain a warrant to affix a GPS device to track a vehicle’s every move.