February 25, 2024
simple software fix limit location data

In recent years, the privacy of location data provided by mobile devices has been a major concern. Salespeople, marketers, and bounty hunters are paying shady third-party companies to track people’s locations using phone interactions and nearby cell towers. This practice differs from local businesses wanting to be found by local shoppers.

What Is Happening?

After making promises to stop selling bulk location data, major companies like AT&T and Verizon continued to do so. The practice was stopped after the US Federal Communications Commission proposed almost $200M in combined fines. However, carriers still wanted to know more about their users. So researchers propose a simple fix for limiting the availability of bulk location data from cell towers.

Security researchers Barath Raghavan from the University of Southern California and Paul Schmitt from Princeton University presented a new scheme called “Pretty Good Phone Privacy” on Thursday, August 12th, 2021. The scheme involves a software upgrade that can limit the data related to the location of wireless users from carriers. This upgrade can be adopted by any carrier and eliminates the need for major changes to the infrastructure.

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How Is This Happening?

Each SIM card contains an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, which is used when establishing a new connection. During this process, the phone searches for the nearest cell tower and provides the IMSI number, as well as information about the tower it is connected to, to the carrier. 

This enables the carrier to verify if the phone has a sufficient balance for continued service and to determine the location of the phone. However, IMSI catchers or Stingrays exploit this interaction to collect location data and may also intercept text messages and phone calls.

Location Data Sharing Is More Damaging Than You Think.

Location data sharing is more damaging than you think. By sharing your location data with apps, you are essentially giving away your privacy. This data can be used to track your movements and even sell to third-party companies. 

Even if you trust the app with your data, there is no guarantee that it will stay safe. In fact, many companies have been caught selling user data without their consent. If you value your privacy, it is best to avoid sharing your location data with anyone.

What Is The Danger Of Location Data Sharing?

There is a growing concern over the potential danger of location data sharing. This is because this information can be used to track an individual’s movements and activities. This could potentially be used for nefarious purposes, such as stalking or identity theft. Additionally, this data could be used to target ads and other content to a person based on their location, which could be intrusive and unwanted.

There are a few steps that people can take to protect themselves from these risks. First, they can limit the amount of location data that they share. Second, they can be aware of the ways in which this data is being used and shared. Finally, they can advocate for better privacy protections around location data.

Despite these risks, location data sharing can also have some positive applications. For example, it can be used to help people find their lost devices or to provide them with relevant and targeted information about their surroundings. It is important to weigh the risks and benefits of location data sharing before making any decisions.

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How Does PGPP Help?

Nowadays, every device is equipped with a wireless standard that produces a unique and frequently changing ID after the initial IMSI exchange. This extra layer of privacy is already integrated into the system for the IMSI exchange.

The Pretty Good Phone Privacy system is an encryption system for communication that modifies the billing verification process carried out by carriers. The proposed solution involves installing portals on each device, which will communicate with billing servers to verify the status of users. 

Instead of revealing the device’s identity, the system will issue digital tokens to indicate only whether the wireless account is paid. Whenever the device attempts to connect to cell towers, the system will filter the interaction through the portal and determine whether to grant service or not based on a simple yes or no interaction.

Raghavan and Schmitt are currently working on turning their research into a startup that could offer users privacy protection while enabling carriers to adopt the system without making significant system modifications.