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This editorial appeared in the Jan. 25, 2019, edition of the (Decatur) Herald & Review:

That phone in your hand might as well be a giant beacon, calling attention to your location and a lot of items you thought were private.

And it's perfectly legal for your cellphone carrier to sell that information to third and fourth parties without your permission.

The San Jose Mercury News reported about the problem, based on a new report from Motherboard, an online publication that takes an in-depth look at all things related to computers and the internet.

"A wide variety of companies can access cell phone location data, and . the information trickles down from cell phone providers to a wide array of smaller players, who don't necessarily have the correct safeguards in place to protect that data," Motherboard reported Jan. 8. The investigation "shows just how exposed mobile networks and the data they generate are, leaving them open to surveillance by ordinary citizens, stalkers, and criminals. ... There's a complex supply chain that shares some of American cell phone users' most sensitive data, with the (telephone companies) potentially being unaware of how the data is being used by the eventual end user, or even whose hands it lands in."

Welcome to a closer look inside technology, where a handheld computer can search the world for arcane questions, take photos, make phone calls, provide calendar reminders and weather forecasts, while it also allows strangers to have hard and soft data about how and where we live our lives, how much we weigh, what we buy, and what medicine we take.

And that doesn't take into account the information derived from our many social media accounts, whose owners may also share data with outside parties.

According to Motherboard and as reported by the Mercury News, location data can be bought for legitimate purposes — for example, by financial firms seeking to detect fraud or by roadside-assistance companies using it to find customers whose vehicles break down. But "aggregation" companies specializing in selling location data are passing it onward "at a profit, and with minimal oversight," the newspaper said. In Motherboard's investigation, location data was sold to a "bounty hunter" who pinpointed the location of a test phone to within a couple blocks.

Several carriers interviewed by the newspaper said they either had changed their policies or were working on that after learning about the issue. Still, at some point, the companies knew they were sharing data with an outside group. Without close attention to the group's plans, the companies in essence provided a key to your locked door of privacy.

Technology is ahead of the law in many areas. Until, or unless, it catches up, we're responsible for making sure technology in our lives doesn't open the door for criminals.

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