A hot potato: An FCC commissioner is calling out his agency for not taking action against cellular carriers for continuing to sell customer location data to unauthorized companies and information brokers.
Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks wrote an op-ed for The New York Times pointing out that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has done little to remedy the selling of private location data.
According to the commission’s rules, the GPS data of cellphone customers are only supposed to be used for 911 purposes. However, last year the NYT broke a story about how a Mississippi sheriff was facing federal charges for repeatedly tracking citizens without a warrant.
He used a company called Securus that provided call monitoring services for inmates. A lesser-known service that the company offered was GPS tracking of specific cell numbers. Securus paid cellular carriers for this data.
Shortly after the news broke, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden sent a letter to the FCC demanding an investigation into the misuse of location data within the industry. It was also about that time that carriers including the big four, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, pledged to cease selling location data to third-party brokers like Securus and others. However, recent reports of the information winding up in the hands of bounty hunters and others would seem to indicate that carriers have not lived up to their promises.
"Federal action is long overdue. The agency’s inaction despite these increasingly troubling reports speaks volumes and leaves our duty to the public unfulfilled."
Starks is concerned that if the FCC does not take action soon the statute of limitations will expire.
“Nearly a year after the news first broke, the commission has yet to issue an enforcement action or fine those responsible,” the commissioner wrote. “This passage of time is significant, as the agency usually has only one year to bring action to hold any wrongdoers accountable before the statute of limitations runs.”
Whether anything will be done about the matter is anybody’s guess. Starks seems to feel that the current chair of the FCC is taking a lenient stance with telecoms, which he sees as partisan and that the rollback of net neutrality rules is also partially to blame.
“Some may argue that the F.C.C.’s authority to take action against wireless carriers for this activity has gotten weaker in recent years, with the repeal of consumer-focused privacy and net neutrality rules during the current administration,” said Starks. “But I believe that the commission still has ample authority to address these egregious pay-to-track practices. As a Democratic commissioner at the Republican-led agency, I can call for action, but the chairman sets the agenda, including deciding whether and how quickly to respond to pay-to-track schemes.”