Nearly Everyone In The U.S. And Canada Just Had Their Private Cell Phone Location Data Exposed

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A company by the name of LocationSmart isn’t having a particularly good month.

The company recently received all the wrong kind of attention when it was caught up in a privacy scandal involving the nation’s wireless carriers and our biggest prison phone monopoly. Like countless other companies and governments, LocationSmart buys your wireless location data from cell carriers. It then sells access to that data via a portal that can provide real-time access to a user’s location via a tailored graphical interface using just the target’s phone number.

Theoretically, this functionality is sold under the pretense that the tool can be used to track things like drug offenders who have skipped out of rehab. And ideally, all the companies involved were supposed to ensure that data lookup requests were accompanied by something vaguely resembling official documentation. But a recent deep dive by the New York Times noted how the system was open to routine abuse by law enforcement, after a Missouri Sherrif used the system to routinely spy on Judges and fellow law enforcement officers without much legitimate justification (or pesky warrants):

“The service can find the whereabouts of almost any cellphone in the country within seconds. It does this by going through a system typically used by marketers and other companies to get location data from major cellphone carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, documents show.

Between 2014 and 2017, the sheriff, Cory Hutcheson, used the service at least 11 times, prosecutors said. His alleged targets included a judge and members of the State Highway Patrol. Mr. Hutcheson, who was dismissed last year in an unrelated matter, has pleaded not guilty in the surveillance cases.”

It was yet another example of the way nonexistent to lax consumer privacy laws in the States (especially for wireless carriers) routinely come back to bite us.

But then things got worse.

Driven by curiousity in the wake of the Times report, a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University by the name of Robert Xiao discovered that the “try before you buy” system used by LocationSmart to advertise the cell location tracking system contained a bug, A bug so bad that it exposed the data of roughly 200 million wireless subscribers across the United States and Canada (read: nearly everybody). As we see all too often, the researcher highlighted how the security standards in place to safeguard this data were virtually nonexistent:

“Due to a very elementary bug in the website, you can just skip that consent part and go straight to the location,” said Robert Xiao, a PhD student at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, in a phone call. “The implication of this is that LocationSmart never required consent in the first place,” he said. “There seems to be no security oversight here.”

The researcher notes that one of the APIs in the portal was not properly validating the consent response, making it “trivially easy” to skip the portion where the API sends a text message to the end user attempting to obtain consent (Brian Krebs, who first reported the vulnerability, has also confirmed the problem). Given the New York Times story had been making headlines since its May 10 publication, it’s obviously possible that others discovered the vulnerability. LocationSmart has since pulled their location data tracking portal offline.

Meanwhile, none of the four major wireless carriers have been willing to confirm any business relationship with LocationSmart, but all claim to be investigating the problem after the week of bad press. That this actually results in substantive changes to the nation’s cavalier treatment of private user data is a wager few would be likely to make.

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