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Hundreds of Bounty Hunters Had Access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint Customer Location Data for Years

Published: February 8, 2019
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In January, Motherboard revealed that AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint were selling their customers’ real-time location data, which trickled down through a complex network of companies until eventually ending up in the hands of at least one bounty hunter. Motherboard was also able to purchase the real-time location of a T-Mobile phone on the black market from a bounty hunter source for $300. In response, telecom companies said that this abuse was a fringe case.

In reality, it was far from an isolated incident.

Around 250 bounty hunters and related businesses had access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint customer location data, with one bail bond firm using the phone location service more than 18,000 times, and others using it thousands or tens of thousands of times, according to internal documents obtained by Motherboard from a company called CerCareOne, a now-defunct location data seller that operated until 2017. The documents list not only the companies that had access to the data, but specific phone numbers that were pinged by those companies.

In some cases, the data sold is more sensitive than that offered by the service used by Motherboard last month, which estimated a location based on the cell phone towers that a phone connected to. CerCareOne sold cell phone tower data, but also sold highly sensitive and accurate GPS data to bounty hunters; an unprecedented move that means users could locate someone so accurately so as to see where they are inside a building. This company operated in near-total secrecy for over 5 years by making its customers agree to “keep the existence of CerCareOne.com confidential,” according to a terms of use document obtained by Motherboard.

Some of these bounty hunters then resold location data to those unauthorized to handle it, according to two independent sources familiar with CerCareOne’s operations.

The news shows how widely available Americans’ sensitive location data was to bounty hunters. This ease-of-access dramatically increased the risk of abuse.

“This scandal keeps getting worse. Carriers assured customers location tracking abuses were isolated incidents. Now it appears that hundreds of people could track our phones, and they were doing it for years before anyone at the wireless companies took action,” Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said in an emailed statement after presented with Motherboard’s findings. “That’s more than an oversight—that’s flagrant, wilful disregard for the safety and security of Americans.”

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Around 250 bounty hunters and related businesses had access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint customer location data, according to documents obtained by Motherboard. The documents also show that telecom companies sold data intended to be used by 911 operators and first responders to data aggregators, who sold it to bounty hunters. The data was in some cases so accurate that a user could be tracked to specific spots inside a building.

Most of the data collected by urban planners is messy, complex, and difficult to represent. It looks nothing like the smooth graphs and clean charts of city life in urban simulator games like “SimCity.” A new initiative from Sidewalk Labs, the city-building subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has set out to change that.

After Motherboard gave a bounty hunter a phone number and a few hundred bucks, their contact responded with a screenshot of Google Maps, containing a highlighted circle indicating the phone’s exact location.

This week, Joseph Cox at Motherboard dropped yet another bombshell report on this subject, noting how he was easily able to pay a bounty hunter $300 to obtain the (supposedly) private location data collected by his cellular provider (T-Mobile). Much like the Securus scandal, the problem once again is the countless location data brokers and third party vendors which are being sold this data, then doing pretty much whatever they'd like with it.

American telecommunications giants are selling access to their customers’ location data, leaving them exposed to being tracked by bounty hunters and others, a disturbing report by Motherboard has revealed.T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are reportedly among the companies whose data is being used to track phone locations, leaving mobile network users exposed without their knowledge.

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