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CYBER Podcast: How We Learned Big Telecom Was Selling Location Data to Bounty Hunters

We discuss the behind-the-scenes process of how we learned AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint were ultimately selling users’ location data to bounty hunters, and Senator Ron Wyden explains what he plans to do next.
Image: Cathryn Virginia

Recently, Motherboard sent $300 to a bounty hunter. Shortly after, he sent us a Google Maps screenshot with the real-time location data of a phone that we'd asked him to track.

This tracking wasn’t thanks to a fancy hacking technique or spy device: it was thanks to data collected and sold by the telecom companies themselves, including AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

As we reported, this data trickles down a series of increasingly obscure middlemen and data aggregators. These companies have names like Zumigo and Microbilt—you’ve probably never heard of them, but they have access to some of American cell phone users’ most sensitive data.

In this episode of CYBER, Motherboard editor-in-chief Jason Koebler and senior staff writer Joseph Cox go deep on the shady—but legal—market of data aggregators and brokers who sell smartphone location data to bounty hunters, bail bondsmen, landlords, used car salesmen, and anyone who can manage to get access and pay for it. You can subscribe to CYBER on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.

We learn how bounty hunters go right up to the edge of what the law allows and use, as one person in the bail bondsman industry put it, "neurolinguistic mind manipulation" to get people to give them information. CYBER host Ben Makuch also talks to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who has legislation pending that would ban these practices and would help protect Americans' privacy.

“Location tracking is a national security and a personal safety nightmare,” Wyden said.