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12/2/2009
07:26 PM
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Sprint Denies 'Massive Disclosure' Of Sensitive Information

A privacy expert's claims vastly overstate the case, the company says.

Responding to Indiana University doctoral student and privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian's claim that Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with customer GPS location data over 8 million times in just over a year, Sprint said the information was "inaccurate" and has been "grossly misinterpreted."

In a blog post on Tuesday, Soghoian published an audio recording of Paul Taylor, manager of Sprint's electronic surveillance team, speaking at a law enforcement industry conference on surveillance in Washington, D.C. on October 13, 2009.

"Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with its customers' (GPS) location information over 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009," states Soghoian in his blog post. "This massive disclosure of sensitive customer information was made possible due to the roll-out by Sprint of a new, special Web portal for law enforcement officers."

Sprint counters that the information has been taken out of context.

"[T]he figure represents the number of individual 'pings' for specific location information, made to the Sprint network as part of a series of law enforcement investigations and public safety assistance requests during the past year," the company said in a statement. "It's critical to note that a single case or investigation may generate thousands of individual pings to the network as the law enforcement or public safety agency attempts to track or locate an individual."

Sprint said that when it does provide information to investigators, it requires a valid legal request -- a subpoena, court order or customer consent -- and that it complies with state and federal laws covering information disclosure.

In an e-mail, Sprint spokesperson said that while the company didn't yet have a precise figure, the number of individuals affected is in the thousands.

"Given that we have 47 million customers, I don't think it will surprise many people that we receive public safety or law enforcement requests numbering in the thousands each year," the spokesperson said.

Yet Internet and communications companies do worry that customers might be surprised and upset by their provision of information to law enforcement agencies.

In seeking to deny Soghoian's Freedom of Information Act request for the prices Yahoo charges law enforcement agencies for surveillance, an attorney representing Yahoo argued that if this information were to be disclosed, it "would be used to 'shame' Yahoo and other companies -- and to 'shock' their customers. Therefore, release of Yahoo's information is reasonably likely to lead to impairment of its reputation for protection of user privacy and security, which is a competitive disadvantage for technology companies."

Privacy protection it seems requires the services of an attorney.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on smartphone security. Download the report here (registration required).

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