back to article Boffins propose Pretty Good Phone Privacy to end pretty invasive location data harvesting by telcos

Computer science boffins have devised a way to prevent the location of mobile phone users from being snarfed and sold to marketers, though the technique won't affect targeted nation-state surveillance. "We solve something that had previously been thought impossible – achieving location privacy in mobile networks," Paul Schmitt …

  1. HildyJ Silver badge
    Holmes

    Great work going nowhere

    "But just because it's legal doesn't mean that MVNOs will rush to disavow data sales revenue and to implement technology that puts their customers' interests above their own."

    Without legislation, this is just an academic paper. Great work and a novel solution that, unfortunately, no companies, be they MVNOs or their data customers, is asking for.

    It's time for governments to act in the interest of their constituents instead of their contributors. I'm not holding my breath.

    1. Snowy Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: Great work going nowhere

      I agree and if you need legislation to make them use this solution why not instead make it illegal to sell this data instead.

      1. martyn.hare
        Trollface

        Why not make burglary illegal?

        Burglars wouldn’t be burglarising if burglarising becomes illegal, right? Right?

        1. IceC0ld

          Re: Why not make burglary illegal?

          Reductio ad Absurdum

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_absurdum

          sorry, had to be said

          we NEED privacy, it is a basic right, that we have tried to maintain for millenia,

          we have doors on bathrooms for example ?

          but yea, NO Co is ever going to shoot that particular golden egg laying avian financial incentive until it IS made law, and by law, I mean the real thing, not something with enough loopholes to allow said incentive to take flight and start again :oP

      2. Robert Grant Silver badge

        Re: Great work going nowhere

        > I agree and if you need legislation to make them use this solution why not instead make it illegal to sell this data instead.

        Because then that's an endless arms race of what is and isn't legal, with small modifications each time. Just preventing the entire possibility in the first place would be better.

    2. Graham Cobb Silver badge

      Re: Great work going nowhere

      It's an interesting idea, which could be taken up by some vendors to include as an option in the standards.

      I would like to see operators offer this as an option for their MVNOs. Then, even without legislation, this could be used by MVNOs who wish to promote their privacy as a competitive differentiator (for example, maybe someone like AAISP might choose to offer this). Legislation (to require all MVNOs to use this) could follow some time later.

      Initially only MVNOs one would be likely to trust anyway would use it (but even then they can say "look - even if Dido Harding became our CEO she wouldn't be able to screw up your privacy"). But it could become a valuable competitive feature in time.

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    1. DS999 Silver badge

      Re: Unless I'm wrong...

      If I'm a 5ms ping time away from you, I could be hundreds of miles away. Unless you think that having telcos know what country you're in at the time matters, that's fine. Let them have a circle that big around my location.

      The phone could deliberately add some delay based on how long the phone itself measures the ping time as. If it knows say 30ms is the point where voice communication starts to suffer, and you measure 11 ms ping time, you can add say 14 ms. If you later measure 7 ms then you add 18 ms. If still later you measure 19 ms you add 6 ms. Good luck using ping times to radius out anyone when they are all in a huge circle that spans half of Europe.

      The problem is more the control of the endpoint. So long as I'm connecting to a tower owned by the telco, it knows where I am. If I call via wifi, it is only how good it can geolocate that IP address. And based on where geolocation stuff thinks my home is located, that's pretty poor (almost always 30-50 miles off)

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        And if you're using a VPN, it could be entirely on the wrong continent.

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          I doubt voice communication via a VPN with a transatlantic round trip would work very well.

      2. teknopaul Silver badge

        Re: Unless I'm wrong...

        If you turn your WiFi and GPS on all day on an Android device Google with thoughtfully correct you approximated location whenever you are on Wifi.

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  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Whoa.....then there's Apple AI............

    .........scanning your iPhone for the phone's GPS data............

    *

    Please tell me again that my iPhone location cannot be coughed up!!!

  5. naive Silver badge

    Guess who

    Drives around with wifi scanners

    Creates accurate maps of wifi access points

    Builds the operating system used by around 90% of the smart phones sold worldwide

    Can see which wifi points are close to the phone

    Can relate wifi information to information on other phones nearby

    Knows everything about the user of each phone

    Can build behavioral patterns based on phone proximity

    In short, the proposed solution only solves half of the equation.

    1. Irongut Silver badge

      Re: Guess who

      Yet still tells me I'm in a different country some 300+ miles from my actual location every time I visit their search engine on PC or mobile.

      1. JimboSmith Silver badge

        Re: Guess who

        I'm the same and only realized when I visited one website. It was showing everything in Deutsche so I changed it to English. When I did so it told me I might want to keep it in German based on my location.

      2. Jan 0 Silver badge

        Re: Guess who

        Google may tell you that, but what does it tell the companies that buy your data?

  6. FuzzyTheBear
    Mushroom

    Won't happen

    Why would they change their software when they make millions selling the data ?

    it's one of those papers that stay on a shelf until it's tossed in the garbage.

    Unless it's an app client side .. it will never happen .

    1. Peter 26

      Re: Won't happen

      The purpose of this paper is to prove it's possible and show how to do it without changing hardware.

      Making it happen is a job for someone else.

      This paper moves the discussion one step forward beyond whether it's possible.

    2. spold

      Re: Won't happen

      ...it seems to theoretically deal with the tower issue. For app practicality today just use a VPN, and a FakeGPS app to shift your GPS positioning. (quite handy if you want to appear to be at work rather than down the pub).

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What about 911 autolocating?

    The article says this won't stop government surveillance. Will it affect the autolocating of the phone when calling 911? (That's US, like 999 for UK.) I suspect that uses the GPS features of the phone rather than relying on the carrier-reported location, but I'm not sure. That's actually a really useful feature - you don't have to explain in detail exactly which state, county, city, then street you're on. (Especially if the answer is "I'm not sure, I wasn't the one driving.")

    1. The Dogs Meevonks

      Re: What about 911 autolocating?

      If you're calling 999/911, then I'd recommend also having the what3words app installed on your phone. It can pin point your position to within 3m based of GPS data.

      I'm house hunting for a place 250 miles away... I can't easily pop round to look at a place... and estate agents rarely bother putting in the exact location on the maps, nor do they give you the actual address until you book a viewing. Meaning you have to hunt around a location trying to find the property you are looking at on maps and often can't because they put the pointer in the centre of a village instead of actually on the property.

      So I started asking for the what3words location from them... some couldn't be bothered, some could... I refused to deal with those that refuse too, and last time I was up there for a few days looking at half a dozen places... I dropped a few notes through doors letting the owners know that their agent is costing them viewings and potential sales because they can't be bothered to let me know 'where' the property actually is unless I make a 500 mile round trip.

      1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        Re: What about 911 autolocating?

        then I'd recommend also having the what3words app

        While What3Words is nice, it's also decidedly proprietary. Pluscodes aren't and are also readily available from your phone.

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: What about 911 autolocating?

          And experience has shown emergency services, in the uk at least, that what3words has some major design flaws. Researchers are suggesting redesigning the algorithm and changing the choice of words, in much the same way that the International Phonetic Alphabet was created after WWII, changing the UK "able, baker, charlie, dog..." to "alpha, bravo, charlie, delta..."

          M.

      2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

        Re: What about 911 autolocating?

        If I'm calling 911, I probably didn't anticipate it. Besides, W3W should not be necessary.

        https://www.revk.uk/2021/08/review-how-emergency-services-handle.html?m=1

    2. MrReynolds2U Bronze badge

      Re: What about 911 autolocating?

      In the UK a combination of EISEC and Advanced Mobile Location SMS is used to geo-locate emergency service callers. This shouldn't be affected by the proposal since transmitter information and/or a phone-based AML protocol is followed.

      I know a lot of people are saying nothing will change, but what this does is stop the phone companies saying that it's impossible or too expensive to implement when the relevant authority asks how privacy can be improved. Of course this will happen right after we start seeing flying pigs.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Isn't this just a "know your place" swipe at an activist using the police as the stick? Was someone in the board monitoring the activists social media accounts? I am speculating the fingerprinting and DNA swab would piss most innocent people off complaining about greedy rich people.

    Big business weaponising law enforcement cannot be a new thing..

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Was this the article you intended to put this comment on?

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