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Wireless phone carriers keep your location data for years, provide it to police

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Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In letters made public on Friday by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), America’s largest wireless carriers explained that they regularly hold onto your location information for months or even years, and will provide that data to law enforcement, even if you haven't given your consent.

“Our mobile phones know a lot about us. That means carriers know who we are, who we call, and where we are at any given moment. This information and geolocation data is really sensitive. It’s a record of where we’ve been and who we are,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement announcing the release of the letters.

“I have asked the Enforcement Bureau to launch a new investigation into mobile carriers’ compliance with FCC rules that require carriers to fully disclose to consumers how they are using and sharing geolocation data,” Rosenworcel added.

T-Mobile explained that it retains “granular latitude and longitude coordinates of devices on its network for up to 90 days, and less-granular cell-site location data for up to two years,” reports CNN Business. AT&T stated it may retain call-detail records for up to five years.

Consumers can opt out of certain aspects of AT&T and Verizon’s advertising programs, but they cannot opt out of having their location data shared with law enforcement. “Like all companies, we are required by law to provide information to law enforcement and other government entities by complying with court orders, subpoenas, and lawful discovery requests,” AT&T told the FCC.

None of the major carriers allow customers to fully opt out of data collection. Verizon told the FCC that “Verizon Wireless customers cannot opt out of [its] data retention policies generally.” Similarly, T-Mobile stated that because opting out of continued data retention could “undermine [its] essential operations,” the company generally does not allow customers to opt out of the T-Mobile’s retention of geolocation data.

The carriers also reported that they use location data to help third parties. Verizon stated that it “may use network location data to develop insights to help estimate traffic patterns during the morning rush hour or how many customers go to a retail store.”

For years, privacy experts have been raising alarms over the amount of data wireless carriers maintain about their customers’ locations. In February 2020, the FCC proposed fining the major U.S. wireless carriers over $200 million for failing to protect consumers' location information.

Americans can directly file privacy complaints or share concerns about how providers are handling their information on the FCC’s website.

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