FCC's Rosenworcel Presses Carriers On Location Privacy

Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is pressing wireless carriers to for details about how they treat customers' location data.

“Real-time location information is sensitive data deserving the highest level of privacy protection,” she wrote Wednesday in a letter to phone companies.

She added that press reports revealed that the companies may have sold that data “without the explicit consent of consumers and without appropriate safeguards in place.”

Her letter comes several months after publication Motherboard reported that a journalist was able to pay a “bounty hunter” $300 to track a phone's location to a neighborhood in Queens, New York.

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News of the incident prompted inquiries from lawmakers to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, as well as to the carriers. The incident also spurred the major phone carriers to vow that they would stop selling this information by the end of March.

Rosenworcel is now asking AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon to say exactly when they ceased selling the data.

She is also asking the carriers whether they required aggregators to destroy customers' location data. “If so, please confirm what steps your company is taking to ensure that these companies delete or destroy previously shared data and any derivative data,” she wrote to AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan. “Alternatively, please explain what AT&T is taking to safeguard such data from use or onward sale that is inconsistent with consumers’ original consent,” she added. (The other carriers received similar letters.)

She gave the companies until May 15 to respond.

Rosenworcel, a Democrat, also criticized the Republican-led agency for failing to publicly respond to reports about the data sales.

“The Federal Communications Commission has said it is investigating, but -- almost a year after this news first broke -- the agency has not provided the public with any details,” she stated Wednesday. “Nor has it taken any public action to ensure this activity has stopped.”

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, also a Democrat, issued similar criticism of the agency last month.

“Our location information isn’t supposed to be used without our knowledge and consent,” he wrote last month in an op-ed in The New York Times. “The F.C.C. must use its authority to protect consumers and promote public safety, and act swiftly and decisively to stop illegal and dangerous pay-to-track practices once and for all.”

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