FCC to hit mobile carriers with fines over location sharing: report

FCC to hit mobile carriers with fines over location sharing: report
© Greg Nash

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to hit the country's top mobile carriers with hundreds of millions of dollars in fines after an investigation found they violated federal law by sharing their customers' geolocation data, according to The Wall Street Journal

Multiple outlets on Thursday reported that the FCC is planning to fine telecom companies including T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon about $200 million. And critics railed against news of the penalties, pointing out $200 million amounts to a small fraction of the billions in total revenue across the telecom companies.

An FCC spokeswoman declined to comment in an email to The Hill, noting the agency can't comment on enforcement items until the commissioners officially sign off on them.  

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The FCC recently concluded its investigation into allegations that the mobile carriers were sharing and selling consumers’ location information without proper consent, which faced scrutiny from lawmakers who said the probe ran on too long.

In response, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai last month told lawmakers that the agency's investigation into the consumer location data practices found that one or more wireless carriers appear to have violated federal law.

At the time, 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. 

On Thursday, Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money: Senate Dems pump brakes on new stimulus checks | Trump officials sued over tax refunds | Fed to soon open small-business lending program Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Voting rights, public health officials roll out guidelines to protect voters from COVID-19 MORE (D-Ore.) accused Pai of “fail[ing] to protect American consumers at every stage of the game."

“And now his response is a set of comically inadequate fines that won’t stop phone companies from abusing Americans’ privacy the next time they can make a quick buck,” Wyden said. 

Tech outlet Gizmodo reported AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint are likely to face fines of $200 million in total — but the companies still have the option to push back on those fines and argue they should pay less.

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The FCC kicked off its investigation after multiple investigative reporters shined a light on the industry’s sharing of location data with third-party brokers, and how easy it is to obtain that data.

Last year, Motherboard was able to track a cell phone’s location by giving a bounty hunter the phone number and $300 to purchase the information off of a data broker.

The New York Times in 2018 published a blockbuster report detailing how service providers were giving data to third-party aggregators.

All of the major providers have vowed to end their partnerships with data brokers.