FCC to vote on cellphone privacy rules

The Federal Communications Commission will vote later this month on whether to require cellular carriers to better protect their customers' privacy, The Hill has learned. 

The regulations would require carriers to take "reasonable precautions" to protect personal information, such as the numbers customers dial, the length of calls and their location. The carriers would be barred, with certain exceptions, from sharing the information with third parties without the customers' permission.

"Millions of wireless consumers must have confidence that personal information about calls will remain secure even if that information is stored on a mobile device," Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said in a statement. "This ruling makes clear that wireless carriers who direct or cause information to be stored in this way have a responsibility to provide safeguards, and I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this effort.”

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The FCC launched a review of mobile privacy issues after a security researcher revealed in 2011 that many cellphone companies use a software called Carrier IQ that collects detailed data about how people use their phones.

The carriers said they were only using Carrier IQ to analyze general information about the performance of their phones and networks. But privacy advocates were outraged to learn that the software tracked the users' locations, their text messages, the websites they visit and their every keystroke.

In filings last year, cellphone companies urged the FCC to back voluntary privacy guidelines rather than mandatory rules.

CTIA, the wireless industry's trade group, urged the commission not to restrict the use of network diagnostic tools like Carrier IQ.

"Such rules are unnecessary and would actually harm consumers by hamstringing providers in their ability to improve service quality, especially in these times of wireless spectrum capacity constraints," the group wrote.

CTIA argued that the FCC actually lacks the legal authority to regulate privacy issues that are not directly related to telecommunications networks. So the privacy of text messages, pictures and emails stored on mobile devices is outside the commission's authority, according to CTIA.

Verizon and AT&T argued that the FCC should let other agencies take the lead on privacy protection.

The FCC's three commissioners are scheduled to vote on the new requirements on June 27.