Will Regulation Limit Real Estate’s Use of Mobile Location Data?

By Franco Faraudo

Not long ago, few outside the tech industry had heard of mobile location data. Since the first smartphone, software developers have harnessed this precious data collected by an army of mobile phones. Only recently has this data been utilized in other industries. Increasingly, companies sell mobile location platforms and analysis to sectors such as transportation, retail, events, and real estate. Mobile location data has now become a standard tool for real estate underwriting, complementing traditional metrics like occupancy, sales comps, and rent rolls.

With the rapid rise in the use of mobile location data came increased regulatory scrutiny. In 2018, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote an open letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regarding what he believed to be an abuse of power by Securus Technology. As a provider of correctional facility telephony services, Securus was providing data purchased from wireless carriers “to conduct activities wholly unrelated to correctional facility telephone services.”

The FCC Enforcement Bureau investigated, and Securus eventually settled for $1.7 million. While the fine wasn’t huge, it spurred the FCC to focus on mobile phone carriers and the sensitive data they sell. “Our communications providers have access to some of the most sensitive information about us. These carriers failed to protect the information entrusted to them. Here, we are talking about some of the most sensitive data in their possession: customers’ real-time location information, revealing where they go and who they are,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

In February 2020, the FCC proposed fines totaling almost $200 million against the largest mobile carriers in the country, including T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint, for selling customer location data to third-party aggregators without sufficient safeguards to protect user privacy. “The protection and use of sensitive personal data such as location information is sacrosanct,” said Loyaan A. Egal, Chief of the FCC Enforcement Bureau and Chair of its Privacy and Data Protection Task Force. “When placed in the wrong hands or used for nefarious purposes, it puts all of us at risk.”

These types of investigations are far from over. In 2023, the Privacy and Data Protection Task Force was created “to address problems that erode the public’s trust in data protection.” Politicians are so concerned about sensitive data being collected and sold by tech companies that a bill to force TikTok’s parent company to sell its social media platform received rare bipartisan support. So far, mobile location data is still for sale in an anonymized form. But, if the FCC continues its crusade against mobile location data sharing, it could make it harder for the real estate industry to obtain the data it relies on for many important decisions.

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🏌🏻‍♂️ City of agency: Clever Real Estate has released a ranking of the best cities in the U.S. for real estate agents based on metrics like salary, affordability, property value, and deal volume.

Stand corrected: Researchers at Florida Atlantic University have created an overvalued real estate index that measures the difference in the actual average home price in a city and compares it to the long-term pricing trend for the city.

Thank you for reading the Propmodo Technology Newsletter! I’d love your feedback, ideas, and tips: franco@propmodo.com.

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