Sprint Makes Goverment Tracking of GPS Data Easy

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There was a time, I suspect, when this news would've been a very big deal: Sprint turned over customers' GPS whereabouts to law enforcement 8 million times over the last year. But today, very few people seem concerned about the revelation.

Blogger and doctoral candidate Christopher Soghoian dug up that tidbit at a closed-door conference called ISS World: Intelligence Support Systems for Lawful Interception, Criminal Investigations and Intelligence Gathering. There, Sprint Nextel's electronic surveillance manager Paul Taylor described an automated system that law enforcement could use to easily look up subscriber whereabouts.

There's some other eye-popping stuff in Soghoian's summary beyond the GPS issue. For example, Taylor said that Sprint keeps 24 months worth of URL history for some devices and that's not even because of law enforcement. "It's because marketing wants to rifle through the data," he said.

Sprint has responded to Soghoian's discovery, explaining that 8 million GPS requests doesn't mean 8 million customers were spied on. For just one subscriber, law enforcement can make a request every three minutes for up to 60 days, according to Wired, so at the very least, Sprint is passing along GPS data for just 278 customers. There are also more benevolent uses that contribute to the 8 million figure, including emergency situations such as a kidnapping and tracking after a 911 call.

Though I'd feel better if Sprint disclosed how many customers' GPS data was turned over to law enforcement, I'm glad the carrier responded quickly to Soghoian's report. Sprint has put some of the fire out of the story, but is it worth forgetting and moving on to the next big thing?

This doesn't appear to be a big story. It's not atop Google News, and ironically a story about Facebook's privacy policy is getting more traction. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is up in arms, but that was too predictable.

Slowly, I'm coming around to the reasoning of my colleague Tony Bradley, who noted that "this type of data is gathered constantly in almost every interaction or transaction they are involved in." This was in response to an earlier revelation that Palm regularly beams customers' location and usage data back to the mothership. Slowly, I'm resigning my expectations of privacy. If law enforcement doesn't get my data, it seems that marketers surely will.

And apparently there's more data out there that would boggle your mind. Wired reports that Yahoo and Verizon argued against turning over information to Soghoian in a Freedom of Information Act request, the former company saying that its pricing information could be used to "shame" Yahoo and "shock" customers. Verizon said some customers might "become unnecessarily afraid that their lines have been tapped or call Verizon to ask if their lines are tapped (a question we cannot answer)."

Verizon also noted that it responds to tens of thousands of law enforcement requests every year.

Stop. Don't tell me anymore, because it's all going to be forgotten by tomorrow anyway. From now on, ignorance is bliss.

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