FCC says wireless carriers violated law by selling location data

FCC says wireless carriers violated law by selling location data
© Greg Nash

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai told lawmakers Friday that the agency's investigation into consumer location data found that one or more wireless carriers appear to have violated federal law.

Pai did not specify which carriers were implicated or what specific laws were broken, but he revealed the findings in letters to lawmakers addressing their concerns about carriers selling real-time location data.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who had pressed the FCC to conclude its investigation into location data sharing without user consent, was one of the letter recipients.

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“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," Pallone said in a statement Friday. "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."

The FCC investigation was opened after a 2018 report in The New York Times detailing how service providers were giving data to third party aggregators.

"It’s a shame that it took so long for the FCC to reach a conclusion that was so obvious," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (D) said in a statement Friday. “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," she added. "It puts the safety and privacy of every American with a wireless phone at risk."

Pai said in his letters to lawmakers that he will be proposing one or more “Notice(s) of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture" in "the coming days."

Such a notice would function as an official declaration that a party broke FCC rules.