The Jethro SC490, aimed at US senior citizens, uses a Chinese location data provider.
A low-cost phone for senior citizens sold in the US and Canada asks to send location and Wi-Fi data to a Chinese internet giant when it boots up, we discovered while reviewing voice phones for PCMag this week.
The Jethro SC490 is sold directly by its maker, as well as on Amazon for $84.99. It has a four-star Amazon rating and purports to work with AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. It also asks to send location data to Baidu—a huge company that’s basically the Google of China—to try to get a location fix when GPS isn’t available.
The SC490’s situation shows one danger of buying low-cost uncertified phones from lesser-known brands in the US. Many of those phones come from China, and the companies involved may cut corners and not properly rewrite their software for American needs.
How Does Your Phone Know Where You Are?
A network location provider (NLP) helps supercharge a phone’s GPS capabilities by delivering a location fix based on cell towers or nearby Wi-Fi networks. NLPs have massive databases of network IDs tied to specific locations. In the US, Android phones typically use Google as an NLP. iPhones use Apple. Mozilla has an NLP too, as does independent company Skyhook.
In other words, there are a bunch of non-Baidu options for phones in North America. But Jethro, a Canadian phone company with US subsidiaries, didn’t bother to unwire its Chinese hardware’s default use of Baidu as its NLP.
Baidu isn’t owned by the Chinese government (it’s publicly traded on NASDAQ), but it’s well known for cooperating with government mandates and restrictions. Within China, I can’t fault that; it’s in a country, it obeys that country’s laws. But those laws and interests tend to be very different from American or European laws and interests.
Why Is a Canadian Phone Sending Data to China?
Jethro is a Canadian mobile-phone company that has been selling unlocked phones for seniors since 2012. Like many smaller phone companies, it doesn’t make anything; it orders phones from Chinese manufacturers and customizes them.
Jethro appears to now be a bunch of related companies: Jethro Trading, based in Langley, BC; Jethro Senior Technology, in Bellingham, WA; and Jethro Mobile, in Ferndale, WA. Jethro Trading is the oldest of the entities, and the company’s FCC documents give Jethro’s contact information and address in British Columbia.
The firm’s specialty is big-button phones with clear, large-text interfaces. There are a few of these brands knocking around (Snapfon also comes to mind) and it’s a category that the major carriers generally don’t sell themselves.