Location Data Gleaned From Apps Handed Over Feds, Broker Admits

The data broker Mobilewalla, which has faced questions about its practices since at least last year, has now acknowledged to a U.S. senator that location data collected from app developers ended up in the hands of the federal government.

“We recently learned that one of Mobilewalla’s subscription customers, Gravy Analytics, has sold mobile data that it licensed from Mobilewalla to Venntel, a Gravy Analytics subsidiary,” Mobilewalla CEO Anindya Datta said in a November 11 letter to Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon).

“We also learned that Venntel licensed mobile device data to U.S. government law enforcement agencies, that included data Gravy Analytics sourced from Mobilewalla,” Datta continued.

Those agencies include the Department of Homeland Security, Internal Revenue Service and the military, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Mobilewalla says it collects information from more than 1.5 billion devices across 30 countries -- mainly via ad-supported apps.

The location data is provided pseudonymously, but the identity of the devices' owners can be pieced together, given that people tend to spent most of their time at home or at work.

Mobilewalla has been under scrutiny since at least June of 2020, when it published a report that analyzed the demographics of Black Lives Matter protesters in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York. Soon after that report came out, Wyden and other lawmakers questioned the company about its data practices.

In August of 2020, Mobilewalla said in a letter to Wyden that the company didn't sell data to law or immigration enforcement authorities. But last week, Datta said he didn't know about Gravy's disclosures when he initially responded to Wyden's initial letter.

Datta also said last week that Mobilewalla is asking Gravy to stop providing Mobilewalla-sourced data to government agencies. He added that if Gravy refuses, Mobilewalla won't renew its contract with the company when it expires -- which isn't until March of 2022.

In the meantime it's not clear whether anything short of an act of Congress will prevent people's highly sensitive location data, supposedly collected for marketing purposes, from ending up in the government's hands.

Whether Congress plans to move forward is uncertain, but it's worth noting that a bill proposed earlier this year would directly address the sale of data to federal authorities. That measure, the “Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act,” would require government agencies to obtain a court order before buying personal information from data brokers.

The self-regulatory group Network Advertising Initiative -- which counts Gravy Analytics as a member -- endorsed that bill in April.

At the time, Leigh Freund, the organization's president and CEO, called the non-consensual sale of consumers' data for to law enforcers and other government agents “unethical,” adding that the practice not only poses a threat to privacy, but also “ultimately threatens the viability of data-driven advertising," 

The organization also recommended in 2020 that members obtain consumers' permission before sharing their location data with law enforcement authorities -- but didn't incorporate that recommendation into an official privacy code.

David LeDuc, vice-president for policy at the Network Advertising Initiative, said Thursday that the organization encourages “privacy-minded companies” to follow its recommendations, but that they “don't carry the weight of law.”

“This is why the U.S. needs comprehensive national privacy legislation to set binding rules of the road on all businesses, including bans on certain uses of data,” he added.

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