Journalism in the Public Interest

Cellphone Companies Will Share Your Location Data - Just Not With You

Who does your location information really belong to?

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images file photos

6/27/2012: This post has been corrected.

Cellphone companies hold onto your location information for years and routinely provide it to police and, in anonymized form, to outside companies.

As they note in their privacy policies, Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile all analyze your information to send you targeted ads for their own services or from outside companies. At least tens of thousands of times a year, they also hand cellphone location information to the FBI or police officers who have a court order.

But ProPublica discovered that there’s one person cell phone companies will not share your location information with: You.

We asked three ProPublica staffers and one friend to request their own geo-location data from the four largest cellphone providers. All four companies refused to provide it.

Here’s how they responded:


On releasing location data to you: “Verizon Wireless will release a subscriber’s location information to law enforcement with that subscriber’s written consent. These requests must come to Verizon Wireless through law enforcement; so we would provide info on your account to law enforcement— with your consent— but not directly to you.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: “ Unless a customer consents to the release of information or law enforcement certifies that there is an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury, Verizon Wireless does not release information to law enforcement without appropriate legal process.” A spokesman said being more specific would “require us to share proprietary information.”


On releasing location data to you: “We do not normally release this information to customers for privacy reasons because call detail records contain all calls made or received, including calls where numbers are ‘blocked.’ Because of an FCC rule requiring that we not disclose ‘blocked’ numbers, we only release this information to a customer when we receive a valid legal demand for it.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: “If the government is seeking “basic subscriber information” (defined in 18 USC sec. 2701, et seq) it can obtain that information by issuing a subpoena. If the government is seeking Sprint records relating to our customers that go beyond “basic subscriber information” then the government must furnish Sprint with a court order based on specific and articulable facts. If the government is seeking customer’s content then it must obtain a warrant based on probable cause.”


On releasing location data to you: “Giving customers location data for their wireless phones is not a service we provide.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: "We do share data with law enforcement as part of a valid legal process - for example, a court order or a subpoena."


On releasing location data to you: “No comment.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: “For law enforcement agencies, we release customer information only when compelled or permitted under existing laws. This includes, but is not limited to, circumstances under which there is a declaration from law enforcement of an exigent circumstance, as well as other valid legal process, such as subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders.”


As location tracking by cell phone companies becomes increasingly accurate and widespread, the question of who your location data actually belongs to remains unresolved. Privacy activists in the U.S. say the law has not kept pace with developing technology and argue for more stringent privacy standards for cell phone companies. As Matt Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania professor put it, “all of the rules are in a state of enormous uncertainty and flux.”

The Obama administration has maintained that mobile phone users have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.” The administration has argued against more stringent standards for police and the FBI to obtain location data.

The FBI also says data collected by cell phones is not necessarily accurate enough to pose much of a threat to your privacy— for instance, in a strip mall, cell phone records may not show whether you are in a coffee shop or the apartment next door.

But that is quickly changing. Blaze said as the number of mobile phones continues to rise, cell phone companies are now installing thousands of small boxes known as microcells in crowded places like parking garages and shopping malls to enable them to provide better service. Microcells, he said, also enable the phone companies to record highly precise location data. While your phone is on, he said, it is constantly recording your location.

T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon and AT&T all refused to disclose how many requests from law enforcement they receive.

Our idea to test whether cellphone companies will give users their own location data came from a German politician who successfully obtained his data last year from Deutsche Telekom. Consumers in Europe have greater protections.

Correction (6/27/2012): This story has been corrected after we mistakenly repeated T-Mobile’s comment as Sprint’s response. We have also updated the story to include an additional response from AT&T.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

June 26, 2012, 4:40 p.m.

I think it’s unfair that cell phone service providers will not share my location information with me. What if I needed to know where I am?  Oh wait, I already know where I am.  Never mind.

Lose the electronic leash.

You’re not that important that you need to be in constant communication.


This is one of several reasons I refuse to have one of these tracking devices.

Is it possible that Sprint and AT&T provided, verbatim, the same responses to, “On responding to requests from law enforcement”, or is there an error in this article? Thanks.


June 27, 2012, 9:18 a.m.

Nice summary.  This is starting to take on the look and feel of patients rights to access their own medical records.  I hope you continue to badger the phone companies to access what is fundamentally “your personal data.”  They may consider it proprietary to them, but this can only be with respects to other private parties.  It should not include ownership from you, the only person who can actually review the information and determine or ignore its accuracy.  What happens when a father lends a child their phone and they stay overnight at their girlfriend’s Mom’s home?

Walter, I suppose it’s impossible for your phone to be separated from your body in a location you aren’t aware of (i.e., “lost”).  It’s also of no interest to you what they might hand over to the FBI on a whim, despite their official statements.  And, in the event that you’re arrested for something and the records could be of interest, you totally wouldn’t want to know what the prosecution has to work with.

As an example of the last, the NYPD considered arresting anybody who was at the Occupy protests by checking location data on cell records and/or social media.  Wouldn’t you like to know if you were close enough ahead of time, rather than when there’s a knock at the door?  Could you vouch for the accuracy?

It’s a secret dossier about you, more complete than anything the Stasi could have assembled in its heyday.  If you don’t have an interest in what it says, you’re being naive.

I’m with Steve, though.  I don’t use them, either, and I’m far, far happier than most people I know.  I suspect it’s because I’m not carrying something that demands almost constant attention (power, software updates, fragility, and constant communication and distraction) without providing much more than amusement.  (They also may damage your sleeping, by showing a color temperature that makes your brain think it’s perpetually morning.)

Mind you, I work with computers all day, so carrying one around for my off hours isn’t exactly liberating.  People with more social or physical jobs might see more benefits, whereas I know there’ll be full communications and computational abilities at my desk in the morning.

If individuals want to be Luddites in this regard, that’s their right.  However, it begs the question whether you have an inherent right to privacy and whether either the private sector or the government have the right to force you to give that up.  The Obama Justice Department has been in lock-step conformity with its Republican predecessor on this and most issues.  The NYPD’s notorious policy of repressing dissent by using police-state surveillance and arresting individuals for accessing their free-speech rights remains a great threat to democracy, and this technology and information in the hands of tyrants just gives them the means to crack down on dissent.  Too bad they didn’t use that power to crack down on financial crooks that operate freely in NYC.  Coincidence?

Seriously the people that can’t take a goddamn shower without facebook glowing in their hand deserve everything they get. F—-ing losers.

*However, it begs the question whether you have an inherent right to privacy and whether either the private sector or the government have the right to force you to give that up.*

The issue is why do corporations have more rights than individuals? The constitution of the US guarantees individual rights - NOT corporate rights.

Of course, in a would-be tyranny as many would obviously like the world to be - I guess that’s par for the course. What a wonderful world these dolts that some people call our ‘leaders’ will leave for our children. You know Mr. Politician and Mr. MoneyMan - there’s no guarantee your children/grand children will be rich and powerful, in spite of what you may leave them. Doesn’t it make sense for man in general to try and guarantee rights for future generations?

But I suppose - at best, history will just remember these ‘leaders’ as the tyrants they are, at worst the world will turn into a bloodbath - like all tyrannies eventually end up as.

What about CREDO ?

track all they want. I live in jersey but my phone resides in w virginia. Son has it in military going around world on ship when deployed. Ha ha

Sounds like a plan to me dude Wow.

Thats what they want youi to believe they lie.  Verizon releases call data records (cell tower location tracking) content to just about anyone who requests it without court order,  not just Law Enforcement.  American Family Insurance violates the law and privacy rights of policy holders.  After they requested a signed consent form to access cell phone records ftom a subscriber who was not the authorized account holder and on a shared family plan and after they were already provided phone billing statement they sent a subpoena to verizon with proposed order that was UNSIGNED and not granted by the court.  Verizon complied with the UNSIGNED SUBPOENA.  Whats the Law on Non-Government Officials requesting Cell Tower Location Tracking (Content Information?)  Pre-Litigation Civil Discovery Prior to Suit being filed but alleging anticipation of one?

Solution (if you wish)? Turn off your cell phone more often. (Record a creative auto-answer.)

Edward Hasbrouck

July 1, 2012, 1:15 p.m.

You say that, “Consumers in Europe have greater protections.” That’s true, but consumers anywhere in the world *should* also have greater protections whenever they are dealing with a company based in the EU.

US citizens and residents can complain to EU data protection authorities and/or sue in EU courts if European companies fail to provide them with access to data about them required by EU laws.

You say that T-Mobile had not comment. But a major reason some customers have chosen T-Mobile over US companies is that it is a division of a German company that it *should* be, and claims to be, governed by stricter European privacy rules than US companies:

“T-Mobile USA, Inc. is the U.S. wireless operation of Deutsche Telekom AG”.

Deutsche Telekom’s “Code of Conduct for the Protection of the Individual’s Right to Privacy in the Handling of Personal Data within the Deutsche Telekom Group” says says that it applies to “all companies in the Deutsche Telekom Group worldwide”:

This includes (section 24), the “Right of Information”:

(1) Every data subject may at any time request information from the responsible company concerning:

a) the personal data recorded on them, including its origin and recipient(s);
b) the purpose of the processing or use;
c) the people and units to whom/which their data are regularly transmitted, particularly if the data are transmitted abroad;...
(2) The relevant information should be made available to the enquirer in an understandable form within a reasonable period of time. This should generally be done in writing or electronically.

If T-Mobile USA is not complying with this code, it is committing fraud (under US law) by falsely claiming to do so, and is violating German and EU data protection law as a division of a German company.

So they can see where I am, im suppose to be afraid? People are way to paranoid these days.

Vincent Del Vecchio

July 2, 2012, 1:58 a.m.

I drive for a living 6 - 7 days a week and I see tons of drug dealing being done in the hood on cell phones some openly while riding in my car without even thinking or caring that I hear what they are talking about…Like using traffic camera’s for catching violators this info can be used to catch drug dealings and shootings locations before they happen…If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to worry about..Even the car I drive has a tracker in it..I don’t care cause I have nothing to hide..I use company car sometimes on the way home from work to pick up grocery’s I know it and they know it..So what! That is the least of their worries with me.

Its not about having nothing to hide - its about complying with the law.  If you are required to comply with the laws why shouldnt these corrupt companys

Vincent Del Vecchio

July 2, 2012, 2:28 a.m.

My girlfriend lives in the Philippines and I went to visit her for three weeks this pasted February 2012 one week after I came back my mail box was stuffed with Credit Card Offers to Cell Phone offers and listing her as my wife…. Privacy? How did they know I went? How do they know I plain to marry her? How they even know her name and connect her with me? Emmm

To the people that keep saying: “I have nothing to hide.” Cops arrest the wrong people and plant information every day of the week for a variety of reasons. If a cop mistakenly(or purposely) puts you in the system as a criminal-YOU have the burden of paying lawyers to keep yourself out of jail.

Innocent until proven guilty rarely exists for the regular citizen-unless you have a lot of connections and cash. If it’s the cops word against yours, and they are using your own cell phone against you, you lose.

Vincent Del Vecchio

July 2, 2012, 11:04 a.m.

My cell phone tracks me 24/7 Via Google maps.When I went to the Philippines this year on Google maps it showed I was at Rochester International Airport and the Time..Then I was at JFK with time stamp then to Hong Kong date and time stamp then to Cebu Philippines date and time stamped even the hotel I was at date and time..then on the way back the same thing..I can print this out at anytime I want and it will tell you where I have been every second of everyday..Prove to me I was somewhere else please!
P.S. also a satellite view of were I am..Also my car has a company tracker in it so for ten hours a day 6 or 7 days a week my company knows were I am and when the car is park at home..It shows that it is park.And no I don’t have a personal car..I am to busy to be accuse of doing anything accept working to hard.I work at Kodak for thirty years no one ever accused me of being somewhere else cause when you walk in the door a swiped my pass it was recorded when I walked in and 12 hours later when I walked out.

Look at it this way:  “If you give me six sentences written by the most innocent of men, I will find something in them with which to hang them.” - Armand Jean du Plessis Richelieu

Are you all so sure that nothing of what you do and where you go can be misinterpreted as indicating illegal activity?  Are you sure that you’ve never stopped off on the side of the road outside a drug dealer’s house?  Never walked past a mugging?  Sat next to a future terrorist at a bar?

Don’t necessarily think purely of government tracking, either.  A criminal who steals the data (like a disgruntled employee) can find lots of uses for your information, ranging from identity theft to stalking to blackmail.  Oh, you were standing next to an ATM for a couple of minutes and are walking towards an expensive restaurant…?

And fjpoblam, the 1980s are over.  The tracking persists even when the phone is off.  Not only that, the phones can be remote-activated.  The FBI was outed in late 2006 for having the phone companies turn on the deactivated phones of mobsters.  You can probably by some sort of metallic wrapper to block the signal entirely, though…

Vincent Del Vecchio

July 3, 2012, 8:53 a.m.

I think the people to worry about are right here posting…This is a nut house..Go Bye!

Well, Vincent, you sure showed us!  Gosh, I never realized that I was dangerous for being aware of government abuse, corporate incompetence, and crime.  Be firm in your views despite facts.

Ignore that Sony accidentally allowed customer data to be released three times or that Telstra (in Australia) put hundreds of thousands of customer records readable on the web, just last year.  Don’t worry about the police demanding private information on the Occupy Wall Street protestors, because it’s not like we have a right to speak our minds.  Ignore systematic abuses at the FBI and NSA with the administration defending them rather than us.  Ignore that a third of the population has been convicted of a crime as a sign that a third of the population is morally deficient, rather than a problem with law enforcement and the courts—couldn’t possibly be a case where a convict was innocent, despite the number of overturned cases.

Above all, though, insult people who with you.  It makes you look so much more intelligent than the rest of us.

barbara guillette

July 11, 2012, 4:21 p.m.

they are going to collect as much and as many cell phone information as they can. Don’t you know that the gov’t is paranoid ,,yet.1884 is here.

1884 was 128 years ago actually.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Dragnets: Tracking Censorship and Surveillance

ProPublica investigates the threats to privacy in an era of cellphones, data mining and cyberwar.

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