TR Daily Starks Backs Speedy Probe of Location Data Sales
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Friday, February 8, 2019

Starks Backs Speedy Probe of Location Data Sales

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said today that the Commission should conduct a speedy probe into the unauthorized sale of consumers’ location information from cellphones, citing a potential one-year statute of limitations.

“This is an issue that over and over, the carriers have said that they’ve stopped, but we’re seeing more and more that the issue seems to remain. And it is startling and chilling to think that our location information can be bought in real time,” Mr. Starks told reporters this morning in his first news briefing since being sworn in last week (TR Daily, Jan. 30). “And so, it’s an issue that I look forward to the Commission looking into. And where the public safety is … this much out front, I think the Commission needs to drive an investigation as expeditiously as possible.”

Mr. Starks, a former assistant chief in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, noted that conduct involving the sale and use of location data goes back to May 2018, and he observed that the Enforcement Bureau, depending on the conduct, usually faces one-year statutes of limitations.

“And so, that investigation, in order to protect Americans, needs to get resolved as expeditiously as possible,” he added.

“I think the Chairman should be more clear on where … he stands on this,” Mr. Starks also said. “I’m sensitive because investigations are, by their nature, confidential, where you don’t typically name parties and … investigate in the public.” The FCC needs to “hold the wrong-doers accountable,” he added.

Mr. Starks, a Democrat, said he wants to work with fellow Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel on the issue. Last week, she said that she has asked the Enforcement Bureau for letters of inquiry related to an FCC investigation into the unauthorized sale of consumers’ location information from cellphones, but she said she has not gotten the letters (TR Daily, Jan. 30).

Ms. Rosenworcel and members of Congress have called for probes in the wake of a recent “Motherboard” report that said T-Mobile US, Inc., Sprint Corp., and AT&T, Inc., have sold access to customer location data that is being obtained by third parties such as bounty hunters (TR Daily, Jan. 9).

Last summer, the FCC said the Enforcement Bureau would investigate reports concerning the unauthorized disclosure of location information (TR Daily, May 18, 2018).

In the wake of the “Motherboard report,” AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Communications, Inc., said that they are terminating agreements with location aggregation companies, including those that provide roadside assistance (TR Daily, Jan. 10), although they made similar commitments last summer in the wake of the earlier location data controversy (TR Daily, June 19, 2018).

Mr. Starks was also asked if he is concerned by the national security implications of permitting China-based Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to sell telecom equipment to U.S. carriers. The FCC is considering that issue in a Universal Service Funding supply chain proceeding.

He noted that the proceeding is open and that he not yet had a national security briefing. But he said that he shares “the concern and the national security risk of incorporating, you know, Huawei and some of their products as we’re starting to think through developing 5G.” He added, “I haven’t prejudged it.”

On spectrum, Mr. Starks also said that the FCC should make improvements to its enforcement tools.

“As we open more spectrum bands to sharing, the Commission’s role in detecting, mitigating, and resolving interference issues is only going to increase in importance,” he said. “And I am concerned that notwithstanding these policies, that the Commission has not altogether dedicated sufficient resources to developing 21st century enforcement tools to address these issues. And without sufficient protections against interference, the efforts of Congress and the Commission to encourage the growth of 5G, I think, will be undermined.” He said he plans to discuss this more in the future.

In response to a question about arguments advanced in the T-Mobile US, Inc., and Sprint Corp. merger proceeding, such as whether the deal would be in the public interest if prices increased but consumers got better service, he replied, “I don’t want to get into hypotheticals, and I haven’t studied these.”

“The Commission’s statutes indicate that it is not just about whether competition is harmed, but also looking at whether competition is enhanced. And so I will be taking a mindful eye towards that,” he added.

In response to a question about how the FCC can be more transparent with the public and the media, he said that the FCC’s public-facing website is not as “user friendly” as it could be, especially for people accessing it on wireless devices. In particular, he cited the process for filing complaints.

Outlining his general approach to his new role, Commissioner Starks said that “three words that are going to frame my commissionership” are access, opportunity, and accountability.

With regard to the last, he said that the FCC is “going to have to make sure we’re holding wrongdoers accountable” with respect to robocalling.

“With regard to access, closing the digital divide is going to be imperative,” he said. He expressed a “deep worry that we could be the generation that deepens our digital divide.”

“With regard to opportunities,” he continued, “obviously 5G is a tremendous opportunity. Obviously something that is deeply important to me is telehealth and telemedicine,” he added noting that he comes from a family of doctors.

“And Lifeline — I’ll continue to be a fierce advocate for. It is a critical pathway for folks out of poverty,” he said.

Asked about dealing with partisanship at the agency, Commissioner Starks said, “I am hopeful that on issues where there is an ability for us to have a unanimous voice, I am eager to do so.” However, he said, “on issues where I don’t like where the Commission is taking us, or our regulatory framework, or the American people, I will speak up.”

Speaking further on broadband issues, Commissioner Starks said that he would “foot-stomp” on Commissioner Rosenworcel’s “homework gap” issue.

Asked whether he agreed with the Republican majority’s approach to trying to close the digital divide by emphasizing the lowering and elimination of regulatory barriers, he said, “I don’t want to get into philosophies.” He added, “A lot of communities are still stuck with no ‘Gs.’ The disconnected are feeling disaffected.”

As for net neutrality, he declined to make a prediction on the outcome of the challenge of the FCC’s 2017 restoring Internet freedom (RIF) order (TR Daily, Feb. 1). However, he said, “I think the American people have the expectation that the Internet will remain free and open and I intend to be an advocate for it.”

He also returned to the robocall issue. He noted that Chairman Pai “has said he expects to move industry along by the end of the year” on addressing the issue. “That’s something I’ll hold him accountable on.”

Returning to the Lifeline issue, he said that “it’s a problem to me if folks who are entitled and eligible are being dropped.”

Referring to last week’s court decision on the FCC’s tribal Lifeline order (TR Daily, Feb. 1), he said, “One thing I’m starting to think about last week is that the court pointedly said the Commission wasn’t looking at the right data.”

“That’s an issue that goes beyond Lifeline, he said. “It goes back to MF-II [Mobility Fund Phase II] mapping data. … If we’re not looking at the right data, if we need to get better data. That’s something I’m going to look at.”- Paul Kirby, [email protected]; Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

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