Commentary

Senators Urge FTC And FCC To Investigate Carriers Over Location Privacy

A growing chorus of lawmakers are calling for an investigation into the privacy practices of wireless carriers.

“The wireless industry has repeatedly demonstrated a blatant disregard for its customers' privacy,” Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Charles Schumer (D-New York) and 13 others said in a letter sent Thursday to the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission. “It is clear that these wireless carriers have failed to regulate themselves or police the practices of their business partners, and have needlessly exposed American consumers to serious harm.”

The new letter comes two weeks after a journalist for Motherboard reported that he was able to track a phone's location to a neighborhood in Queens, New York by paying a “bounty hunter” $300. 

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The carrier for that particular phone was T-Mobile, but apparently could just as easily have been AT&T, Verizon or Sprint. Soon after that explosive report was published, the four major carriers promised to stop selling location data.

But they had made that promise before. Last May, it emerged that an aggregator was selling location data to law enforcement authorities who lacked warrants; at the time, the carriers responded by vowing to stop selling location information to outside aggregators.

Wyden and the other lawmakers said Thursday that the FTC and FCC should force carriers to notify everyone whose location data was shared or sold. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel joined in the lawmakers' request for an investigation.

This isn't the first time lawmakers have demanded investigations into the carriers' obviously lax approach to privacy.

Two weeks ago, House Democrats unsuccessfully asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for an emergency briefing about carriers' locations practices. Pai responded that location-data sales weren't the kind of safety threat that the FCC is addressing during the ongoing government shutdown, according to Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-New Jersey).

House Republicans also are seeking answers directly from wireless carriers. “This practice of selling and sharing of location information ... potentially impacts hundreds of millions of American customers,” Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce committee wrote in letters sent last week to the CEOs of AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

In 2016, the FCC passed a set of broadband privacy regulations that would have explicitly prohibited carriers from sharing a host of data about customers without their explicit consent. Those rules were revoked by Congress in 2017.

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