While some states have taken steps to protect cell phone information, Massachusetts could become the first state to outright ban the sale of location data from cell phones.
A bill making its way through the state house was designed to protect health care privacy following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, but it could have much broader effects.
Here's what to know about cell phone location data:
What can data brokers do with cell phone data right now?
Data brokers are able to buy and sell cell phone location data to anyone with a credit card without many restrictions.
"There's very little in terms of law that prevents companies from doing this, as long as they at least include somewhere in their privacy policies that this is something that they're doing," said Andrew Sellars, a Boston University law professor and director of the Technology Law Clinic.
Sellars said that there have been recent updates to operating systems that can alert users when their data is being tracked or obscure the specificity of the users' location, but overall there's little protection for buying and selling location data.
Can law enforcement agencies buy cell phone data?
Yes. Sellars says that under the current law, law enforcement can circumvent obtaining a warrant to get data by buying data directly from brokers.
"The Electronic Privacy Information Center has done some studies on this recently and shown that there's been a growing market of consumer location data that's handled by data brokers being bought by law enforcement at all different levels: federal, state, and local law enforcement," said Sellars.
This is particularly concerning for abortion rights and civil rights groups, who have been urging lawmakers to pass this legislation protecting location data. The advocacy groups argue that the sale of cell phone location data could expose people seeking care in abortion clinics to harassment and prosecution in some states.
How would this proposed legislation work?
The bill provides a defined scope of purpose in which companies can collect and use a customer's location data. Under the legislation, companies would only be allowed to use location data to provide a product or service that a consumer wants.
"For example, if you are ordering food on a food app and it's using your location to know where to deliver the food, that would be a permissible use," said Sellars. "But aside from that, you are essentially prohibited from doing anything else with the data."
What doesn't the bill cover?
This legislation specifically targets location data on mobile devices, meaning other data collected on other devices is not protected.
"That leaves a lot of other types of sensitive information that might be out there that you might be getting through websites, just on the internet using your laptop or desktop," Sellars said.
This includes other "highly identifiable" data that may be tracked, but is not tied to location.
This article was originally published on July 14, 2023.
This segment aired on July 13, 2023.