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5 Ways Companies Use Your Cellphone Location Data

Sarah KrouseAugust 2018

The smartphones at the center of consumers’ lives generate vast streams of data on where they live, work and travel, and how wireless giants like AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. use that personal data and share it with other companies has come under increased scrutiny.

The four major U.S. carriers said in June that they would stop selling access to the locations of individual customers to two companies—LocationSmart and Zumigo—following accusations that a LocationSmart customer misused the information. (The Federal Communications Commission has referred the LocationSmart issue to its enforcement division, a spokesman said.)

But those two middlemen aren’t the only companies that have had or continue to rely on access to the locations of cellphone users to make money.

Location data controlled by carriers is different from the data collected by popular applications such as Uber or Facebook . Because those apps get location data directly from a consumer’s phone—and not from wireless carriers—consumers opt into sharing their location in exchange for or as part of receiving a service. (Read about how other companies get permission to use your data.)

Here’s a look at five scenarios in which companies or carriers have relied on or considered using cellphone location data.

1. Roadside Assistance

John gets a flat tire and pulls over to the side of a highway to call for roadside assistance.

The American Automobile Association in the past partnered with LocationSmart, according to a company press release. Members of the auto club had the opportunity to opt out of sharing their location information when they made a service call and instead describe nearby road markings or intersections, an AAA spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman said the company has “other methods in place to locate members” but declined to comment on the options available. The company is “researching various opportunities that can potentially replace the additional location services provided by our current telecommunications provider,” she added.

2. Traveling Abroad

Susan attends a conference in London and then spends a week in Paris. While she is in those countries, her mobile phone relies on local wireless networks.

Tampa-based Syniverse Technologies LLC helps wireless carriers around the world square up on customer roaming charges between their networks. As a result, the company sees which country a mobile user is in, which network they receive service from, the quality of that service and what types of communication a traveler has used, a Syniverse spokeswoman said.

“This information that Syniverse receives as part of providing its services to the mobile operators does not include any granular GPS, cell tower or other similar location-based information, such as city or street,” the Syniverse spokeswoman said.

3. Fraud Prevention

Ted buys a pair of sneakers while he is traveling in Germany.

Syniverse, owned by private-equity giant Carlyle Group , in the past worked with Mastercard Inc. on fraud-prevention services that would match a traveler’s location with where he or she was making purchases. A spokesman for the credit-card company said work on location-based fraud prevention products stopped last year.

Representatives for Syniverse said the Mastercard fraud service “was never fully launched so we never received any country code information.”

4. City Planning

A city-planning board is considering creating a new bus route and wants to know how many people live in a given neighborhood and commute downtown for work.

Companies such as Teralytics AG plot the travel patterns of wireless subscribers for use in infrastructure, public transportation and other urban-planning projects.

Teralytics works with one of the major U.S. carriers and receives an “anonymized representative sample” of location data, a spokeswoman said. The company typically needs a representative sample of 15% to 30% of the population, she said.

Teralytics is only allowed to use the data to help “city planners and transport services understand how people’s mobility needs are evolving, resolve transport hotspots and make sure that transport services meet everyone needs,” she said.

5. Shopping

A retailer wants to know how many people walk past each of its locations.

Pinsight Media, a subsidiary of Sprint Corp. , uses anonymized data on how the wireless carrier’s subscribers shop, use apps and travel in the U.S. to give retailers, financial services companies and other firms data on their tastes and habits.

Apps also partner with Pinsight to serve targeted advertisements and must get consent from their users to collect and use information about them.

Another digital advertising unit owned by a carrier, Verizon’s Oath, also includes a team focused on using subscriber location data to deliver targeted advertisements.

 

Article Source: Wall Street Journal

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