A New York City lawmaker this week proposed a bill that would prohibit phone carriers and mobile app developers from selling data about people's locations.
The measure, introduced by Brooklyn City Council member Justin Brannan, provides for fines of $1,000 per violation, and also allows consumers to bring private lawsuits. It would only apply within New York City.
“This is about protecting the people who don't know when they sign up for a new cell phone that they're basically signing away their right to privacy,” Brannan tells MediaPost.
The proposed bill comes at a time of increasing efforts by states and cities to safeguard consumers' privacy.
In January, the city of Los Angeles sued The Weather Channel for allegedly deceiving app users by misleading app users into believing their location data will only be used to provide them with personalized weather-related information. Instead, according to the complaint, the app sells the data for ad-targeting purposes.
Other efforts have aimed to protect privacy beyond location data. Last year, California passed a sweeping bill that allows consumers to learn what personal information about them is held by businesses, request deletion of that information, and opt out of its sale.
And earlier this year, Maine passed legislation that prohibits broadband access providers -- like Charter, AT&T and Comcast -- from disclosing consumers' personal information without their explicit consent.
Carriers' location data practices have been in the news since at least last May, when it emerged that an aggregator was selling location data to law enforcement authorities who lacked warrants. The carriers promised at the time to stop selling location information, but dragged their feet on following through: In January, the publication Motherboard reported that carriers were still selling customers' location data to third parties.
Motherboard's article detailed how a reporter paid a “bounty hunter” $300 to track a phone's location to a neighborhood in Queens, New York.
The carrier for that phone was T-Mobile, which shared the location data with the aggregator Zumigo, which in turn disclosed the data to Microbilt. Microbilt shared the information with a bounty hunter, who shared it with a bail industry source, according to Motherboard.
The four major U.S. carriers are now all facing class-action lawsuits. In addition, earlier this month the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation filed suit against AT&T. The EFF argues that an existing national law, the Federal Communications Act, already prohibits carriers from selling customers' location data.
Brannan's proposed bill would not apply only to carriers, but also to app developers, which are largely unregulated by the government.
Currently, the voluntary industry organization Network Advertising Initiative prohibits members from using geolocation data without consumers' opt-in consent. That self-regulatory group said Thursday that precise location data should be protected, but at the national level.
“Rather than creating a patchwork of divergent privacy regulations at the state and local level, the NAI urges Congress to incorporate this issue as part of a national privacy framework,” president and CEO Leigh Freund stated.
For his part, Brannan agrees that a single nationwide law would be preferable, but says that in its absence New York City should move forward.
“It's better to just have a federal policy that just covers everything, but we can't wait forever,” he says.