Cell phone location data is a hot commodity for advertisers and a big opportunity for wireless companies, but New York is considering whether to put a stop to location information sales within the city limits.
New York City Councilman Justin Brannan introduced a bill to the city council Tuesday that would bar mobile carriers and app developers from sharing people’s location data.
In the terms of service cell phone customers have to sign (and few read), people give wireless companies the ability to collect and sell their location data. Although wireless customers can turn off location tracking, they need to turn it on for many basic tasks, including navigation.
Brannan said he was introducing the bill because the average person “has no idea” that mobile carriers “are cashing in on their private location data by selling it to third parties.” He added, “It’s Big Brother Big Business, and if we don’t act, it’s going to get worse.”
Under the proposal, law enforcement agencies could still request and obtain location data legally, and so can emergency services. Federal, state or city law can still require data, and customers can still willingly provide their location data.
AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) and T-Mobile (TMUS) said last year that they would no longer provide customer location data to third-party aggregators, who could then misuse that information. (AT&T (T) owns WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company.)
In January, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in a Tweet that the company would end the practice of sharing location data with aggregators. “We’re doing it the right way to avoid impacting consumers,” he wrote.
The wireless companies did not respond to requests for comment this week. CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade organization, said the group is studying the bill. “Crossing state or city lines doesn’t change your wireless experience. The laws governing that experience shouldn’t change either,” Jamie Hastings, a senior vice president at CTIA, told CNN Business.
Brannan told CNN Business Tuesday his bill was still necessary, despite wireless carriers’ promises.
“How many times are big corporations going to take advantage of us before we stop taking their word?” he said. “If these corporations wanted to be transparent about this practice, they wouldn’t have started selling the data to shady third parties without a person’s explicit consent in the first place. Why should we trust them now?”
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson expressed interest in the bill, saying that he would monitor it through the legislative process.
“We live in an age where people’s private information is being sold to the highest bidder, and it is important for us to think of 21st century fixes,” he told CNN Business in a statement.
Before the bill gets voted on, a committee on technology will examine it.
Bernard Harcourt, a Columbia University professor of law and political science, called the bill a major inroad for city regulation of privacy.
“The entire business model of these companies depend on selling our data for digital advertising, so until their business model changes, there is no reason to take them at their word,” Harcourt said.