Cell phone companies are selling your data: PIs & Bounty Hunters want it. Lawmakers have questions. The FCC is quiet.

First, let’s start off with what happened.

On January 8th, Motherboard released an investigative article written by Joseph Cox. On it, he writes that he gave a bounty hunter $300, and the bounty hunter was able to locate a cell phone’s location by “pinging” it. As he continued to investigate, the uncovered that cell companies sell your data – and it can land in the wrong hands.

T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are selling access to their customers’ location data, and that data is ending up in the hands of bounty hunters and others not authorized to possess it, letting them track most phones in the country.

Motherboard – Joseph Cox
microbilt_flowchart

A flowchart showing how the phone location data trickled down from T-Mobile to Motherboard. Image: Motherboard.

People have done it in the past – albeit using different methods.

In the private investigations / security industry, people had “legitimate” reasons to figure out where someone was located. At the time – we’re talking about early 2000’s – PI’s and Bounty Hunters used Trap Lines.

The idea behind using a trap line is that if you capture the telephone number that the party is dialing from, you have a fact that they were at this location at the time of the call.

PI Mall – Ralph Thomas

After you have the phone number, you would use a Database Provider like IRB Search or Tracer’s Info to get an address attached to that number. If you did this correctly, you would – in many instances – know if your subject was at home. If they had a beeper, you could figure out where they were at that current time. (Payphones, work number, relative’s home, etc.)

Then, Cell Phones came into the picture, and Trap Calls started to die off.

Enter Cell Phone Pinging

So now Private Investigators and bounty hunters wanted mobile location data. At the time, it was either done through Triangulation, or through digital pinging methods.

There are two ways a cellular network provider can locate a phone connected to their network, either through pinging or triangulation. Pinging is a digital process and triangulation is an analog process.

Pursuit Magazine – Scott Harrell – 2008

Back around the 2007ish era – cell phone pinging was “known” about, but not many people know how it was done. Some bounty hunters knew about it, others talked about it, many pretended to do it, but only a few actually had access to the data and technology.

Eventually, the secret came out. Those PI’s that had access to the data would buy the data from Bail Bond Companies who bought the data from Microbilt – which is the third party company that was investigated by Motherboard.

The Legal Issues

Over the years, we’ve heard several arguments about whether or not it was legal to “ping” a phone. Private Investigators and Bounty Hunters who used it, said it was legal. Other investigators who were against it said it was illegal. Even though that law states that you can’t ping a phone without the consumer’s consent, some investigators claimed they gave up that consent when they broke the law.

The TRPPA states:

Anyone selling cell phone location information without the customer’s consent would be in violation of TRPPA—because cell phone location information falls under the definition of “confidential phone records.” 

Belles Link – Paul Kulas – 2013

The legal areas became blurred… no one really knew if it was legal or not, regardless, every major Cell Phone provider stopped selling the data. Or so they claimed.

Despite promises to stop, US cell carriers are still selling your real-time phone location data

– Tech Crunch – Zack Whittaker

A Service is Born

Because of that “gray” area in the law, the service of Cell Phone Pinging was allowed to thrive. I know of several investigators who had access to a “Source” that sold them the data at $300 per ping. They (the investigators) would then sell the data for as much as $500 per “verified” location.

When we dug around a few years back, we tracked down an investigator who claimed to have access to this type of data. He said that he was friends with a bail bond company owner who had access to Microbilt. They would pretend the phone number belonged to a client of theirs, and in return, Microbilt gave back the phone number’s location. The bail bondsman would make $280, the PI would resell it for $200 on top of that – $500/Pop.

A Verizon employee was even arrested for selling private phone records to a private investigator for as little as $50/month.

A former Verizon Wireless employee has plead guilty to illegally selling customer phone records and location data to a private investigator.

Fortune – Madeline Farber

This “market” exists because people – some with good intentions, and some with bad, want this data.

The investigator that we spoke to mentioned a new type of technology that was making the rounds in the bounty hunting industry – Stingray Technology – A topic for another day.

The Mother Load by Motherboard

This brings us back to Motherboard. They were able to track down the data process. How they acquired the data, who they paid, where the data came from, and how to get it.

We manage and moderate several PI Groups, we are also members of several groups for Private Investigators, Security Professionals, Digital Forensic Professionals, Bail Bond & Bounty Hunter Groups, etc. On these groups, the questions being asked are:

  • How can we get this data?
  • If anyone has access to Microbilt, I want to talk to you.
  • Who has access to Zumigo, DM Me so we can talk.
  • How much does this data run for?

Disregard the fact that people are going to get investigated. The private security sector still wants or is seeking information on how to get the data. And Motherboard just listed out the major players – the source. It’s only a matter of time before someone else figures out how to get it, unless regulators step in.

Wyden. who tweeted about the story, said carriers selling customer location data “is a nightmare for national security and the personal safety of anyone with a phone.” And yet there’s no way to opt out — shy of a legislative fix — given that two-thirds of the U.S. population aren’t going to switch to a carrier that doesn’t sell your location data.

– Tech Crunch – Zack Whittaker

Legal Makers Come Into the Picture

If this is regulated, it’s going to hurt the Security Industry, and maybe that’s okay. It was only a matter of time before a Bounty Hunter, or Private Investigator, sold data that they shouldn’t have. If they sold it to the wrong person, the consequences could have been devastating. Motherboard found one of those bounty hunters willing to sell it, and now legal makers are looking for answers, regulation, and ways to punish those responsible.

The American people have an absolute right to the privacy of their data, which is why I’m extraordinarily troubled by reports of this system of repackaging and reselling location data to unregulated third party services for potentially nefarious purposes.

– Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.)

The FCC is Quiet.

People have reached out to the FCC for comments, but they haven’t said anything.

The agency’s operations are limited because of the ongoing government shutdown.

– The Washington Post

Ruben Roel