FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told members of Congress today that he plans to circulate “in the coming days” a draft notice of apparent liability for forfeiture concerning apparent violations of federal law related to the disclosure by at least one wireless carrier of consumers’ real-time location data.
Mr. Pai wrote House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.), communications and technology subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D., Pa.), and nine other Democrats on the subcommittee who had written him in November updating them on a letter he sent them last month concerning the status of the Enforcement Bureau’s real-time location data investigation, which the FCC announced in 2018 (TR Daily, May 18, 2018).
“Fulfilling the commitment I made in that letter, I wish to inform you that the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has completed its extensive investigation and that it has concluded that one or more wireless carriers apparently violated federal law,” Mr. Pai said. “I am committed to ensuring that all entities subject to our jurisdiction comply with the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules, including those that protect consumers’ sensitive information, such as real-time location data. Accordingly, in the coming days, I intend to circulate to my fellow Commissioners for their consideration one or more Notice(s) of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture in connection with the apparent violation(s).”
An FCC spokesperson declined to provide additional details.
News reports said that wireless carriers sold access to customer location data, which was obtained by third parties such as bounty hunters (TR Daily, Jan. 9, 2019). However, the carriers later said they had stopped the practice of selling data, although not as quickly as they had originally indicated they would.
For example, in the wake of a January 2019 Motherboard report, wireless carriers said that they were terminating agreements with location aggregation companies, including those that provide roadside assistance (TR Daily, Jan. 10, 2019), although they made similar commitments in the summer of 2018.
Democratic Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks and Democrats in Congress have complained about the length of the FCC’s investigation and lack of any public findings so far, and Mr. Starks, a former EB official, has expressed concern that the statute of limitations in the case would expire.
At a House communications and technology subcommittee hearing last month, Mr. Pai was grilled about the location information probe. He said that he expected EB to complete part of its investigation this month (TR Daily, Dec. 5, 2019).
“For more than a year, the FCC was silent after news reports alerted us that for just a few hundred dollars, shady middlemen could sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. It’s chilling to consider what a black market could do with this data. It puts the safety and privacy of every American with a wireless phone at risk,” Ms. Rosenworcel said today. “Today this agency finally announced that this was a violation of the law. Millions and millions of Americans use a wireless device every day and didn’t sign up for or consent to this surveillance. It’s a shame that it took so long for the FCC to reach a conclusion that was so obvious.”
“These pay-to-track schemes violated consumers’ privacy rights and endangered to their safety. I’m glad we may finally act on these egregious allegations. My question is: what took so long?” Commissioner Starks asked in a tweet.
Commissioner Mike O’Rielly’s office had no comment today, and Commissioner Brendan Carr’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
“Following our longstanding calls to take action, the FCC finally informed the Committee today that one or more wireless carriers apparently violated federal privacy protections by turning a blind eye to the widespread disclosure of consumers’ real-time location data,” Rep. Pallone noted in a statement. “This is certainly a step in the right direction, but I’ll be watching to make sure the FCC doesn’t just let these lawbreakers off the hook with a slap on the wrist.”
“When I alerted the FCC in 2018 that wireless carriers were selling their customers’ location data to a shady prison phone company which was allowing prison guards to track Americans’ cell phones, I knew immediately that the practice was a security and privacy nightmare,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.). “Dogged reporting by Motherboard and the New York Times revealed that this was just the tip of the iceberg and that stalkers, rogue sheriff’s deputies, and shady data brokers had used this massive loophole to track Americans without their permission or knowledge. Thanks to an outcry from consumers, last year the big wireless companies finally stopped allowing shady data brokers to track their customers. I’m eager to see whether the FCC will truly hold wireless companies accountable, or let them off with a slap on the wrist.”
Verizon Communications, Inc., and AT&T, Inc., referred questions about the disclosure of location information to CTIA, while Sprint Corp. declined to comment.
In a statement, CTIA said, “Wireless companies are committed to protecting the privacy of consumers and share location data only with customer consent. Upon hearing allegations of misuse of the data, carriers quickly investigated, suspended access to the data and subsequently terminated those programs.” —Paul Kirby, [email protected]
MainStory: FCC FederalNews Congress DataBreach
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