Are you reading this blog post on your mobile telephone? If you’re doing so, you can now feel a little more secure about carrying it with you when you leave your home.
Why? Because the four major cell phone networks have decided to stop selling customer location data to third parties. They made this choice in response to the inappropriate corporate behavior of LocationSmart, a data aggregator.
How did LocationSmart mishandle location data? Unfortunately, the four carriers didn’t release detailed information regarding its actions. Nevertheless, LocationSmart’s web site highlights its sale of geofencing services.
A geofence is a virtual sensory field that surrounds a geographic location. When someone approaches the field, his mobile phone “pings” its location to the cellular network without notifying its owner. The data can be instantly communicated to a business that occupies the location, or packaged and then sold to third parties.
A relatively benign service might involve the text messaging of a price discount offer to a mobile phone in order to entice its owner to enter a store within the geofence. A potentially malignant service, though, might involve the compilation and sale of detailed personal profiles of cell phone owners.
The malignancy of a profiling service need not be intentional on the part of the data aggregator. Consider, for instance, the plight of an individual who frequently visits a grocer or restaurant that has recently opened in a building that also houses a cigar shop. A health insurer that purchases the data may (erroneously) flag the individual as a cigar smoker. The individual may never become aware of the sale of his location data, or of his health insurance classification.
The recent decision of the four cell phone networks removes one path to such an outcome. But if individuals continue to download and install applications without reading the fine print in their Terms and Conditions, they may provide data aggregators with new paths to the same undesirable outcome.