Ajit Pai Refuses To Brief Congress On What He Plans To Do About Wireless Location Data Scandals

from the thanks-but-no-thanks dept

So last week yet another location data scandal emerged for the wireless industry, highlighting once again how carriers are collecting your location data, then selling it to a universe of sometimes shady partners with little to no oversight or accountability. Like the Securus and LocationSmart scandals before it, last week’s Motherboard report highlighted how all manner of dubious dudebros (and law enforcement officers) have been abusing this data for years, and the Ajit Pai FCC has yet to so much as mention the problem, much less spend a single calorie addressing it in any meaningful way.

Shortly after the scandal broke last week, Frank Pallone, the Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, asked Pai (pdf) to brief Congress on the steps the agency was taking to address the wireless sector’s long-standing failure to adequately address location data abuse. Pai’s response? Yeah, no thanks.

In a statement issued by Pallone, he says Pai’s office claimed that since the location data scandal wasn’t putting lives at risk, Pai could not attend such a briefing during the government shutdown:

“Today, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai refused to brief Energy and Commerce Committee staff on the real-time tracking of cell phone location, as reported by Motherboard last week. In a phone conversation today, his staff asserted that these egregious actions are not a threat to the safety of human life or property that the FCC will address during the Trump shutdown.

While the FCC’s working on a skeleton crew right now due to the shut down, there’s nothing actually stopping Pai from wandering down the road to answer a few questions, something Pallone was quick to highlight in his statement:

“There?s nothing in the law that should stop the Chairman personally from meeting about this serious threat that could allow criminals to track the location of police officers on patrol, victims of domestic abuse, or foreign adversaries to track military personnel on American soil. The Committee will continue to press the FCC to prioritize public safety, national security, and protecting consumers.”

Granted Pai wasn’t doing much about this problem when the government was open, either.

Academics and other privacy experts have told me this could easily be addressed using the FCC and FTC authority we already have (read: we don’t even need a new privacy law), we’ve just chosen to kowtow to telecom lobbyists instead. In fact the FCC’s privacy rules would have addressed the issue by giving consumers more control of how their location data is shared and sold, but sector lobbyists made quick work of those rules back in 2017. Even having Pai publicly state that this behavior is unacceptable might go a long way toward addressing the issue, though he’s yet to do even that.

Pai has made it fairly clear by now that he sees government consumer protection oversight as largely unnecessary, and all criticism of his unpopular policies as entirely political in nature, therefore making it OK to ignore (the myopia of that belief system most obviously exemplified by his attacks on net neutrality). As a result, you should expect the FCC to continue to do little to nothing about location data scandals. At least until there’s enough scandals of this type to push public outrage past the breaking point, finally making it clear that doing absolutely nothing is no longer an option. So, 2025 or so?

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Comments on “Ajit Pai Refuses To Brief Congress On What He Plans To Do About Wireless Location Data Scandals”

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42 Comments
Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Why not? If someone has my location data, they’ll learn that I spend most of my time at home or at work, and that I occasionally spend time at restaurants, going to movies, going to church, shopping, training at a local dojo, etc. They might uncover the rather salacious detail that I visit somebody in a town 30 miles away on a semi-regular basis… until a bit of digging reveals that that’s my parents’ house. Honestly there’s nothing particularly ground-shaking there.

But if someone’s spying on my conversations and online associations, things I do in the privacy of my own home, that’s where my privacy is being invaded. If Facebook starts reporting to people on what sites I visit, what my interests are, who I associate with, etc, they can abuse that in ways that knowing my location would never make problematic.

The report did mention one class of people for which this is not true: apparently this location information is being used by bounty hunters to more efficiently track down fugitives. And, well… why exactly is that a bad thing, to take some of the uncertainty out of hunting down dangerous people, which (among other things) helps them to reduce the risk of anyone getting hurt in the process?

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Why not? If someone has my location data, they’ll learn that I spend most of my time at home or at work, and that I occasionally spend time at restaurants, going to movies, going to church, shopping, training at a local dojo, etc. They might uncover the rather salacious detail that I visit somebody in a town 30 miles away on a semi-regular basis… until a bit of digging reveals that that’s my parents’ house. Honestly there’s nothing particularly ground-shaking there.

The difference is that you voluntarily feed info to FB, your location info is sold without you having a say.

> And, well… why exactly is that a bad thing, to take some of the uncertainty out of hunting down dangerous people, which (among other things) helps them to reduce the risk of anyone getting hurt in the process?

Anecdotal positive use of the info doesn’t mean all uses of the info is positive. Criminals finding out that you are out of state can break in and clean out your property, stalkers can find out where you are etc etc. There are a multitude of uses of the information that can negatively impact you.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Why is this a bad thing?”

Seriously?

They’re collecting data on EVERYONE. To justify that with “well, it catches some bad people” is on a par with jailing all black males under 30 because SOME of them are violent criminals.

We’re already seeing that mindset – you need ID and a signature for SINUS MEDS because SOME people make methamphetamine using it.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

To justify that with "well, it catches some bad people" is on a par with jailing all black males under 30 because SOME of them are violent criminals.

…huh? Is anyone actually doing that? Is anyone even advocating doing that?

As far as I know, the answer to both questions is "no." So why are you bringing it up in response to a discussion about things that are really happening?

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

That YOU, personally, are just fine with being literally spied on and tracked because ” this location information is being used by bounty hunters to more efficiently track down fugitives” in no way make it just fine with the rest of the population.

The data collected on EVERYONE with a cell phone for resale is more detailed than what is logged for felons on parole.

I am not ok with that – and not just for myself.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

If someone has my location data, they’ll learn that I spend most of my time at home or at work, and that I occasionally spend time at restaurants, going to movies, going to church, shopping, training at a local dojo, etc. They might uncover the rather salacious detail that I visit somebody in a town 30 miles away on a semi-regular basis… until a bit of digging reveals that that’s my parents’ house. Honestly there’s nothing particularly ground-shaking there.

This is fallacious reasoning. "If somebody spies on me, they’re not going to learn anything interesting" is not an argument that spying on customers is acceptable.

But if someone’s spying on my conversations and online associations, things I do in the privacy of my own home, that’s where my privacy is being invaded. If Facebook starts reporting to people on what sites I visit, what my interests are, who I associate with, etc, they can abuse that in ways that knowing my location would never make problematic.

It’s perfectly reasonable to criticize Facebook’s intrusive data-mining and reselling, but it’s got a whiff of Whataboutism to it. Even if we assume that Facebook’s data-gathering is worse (and that’s debatable for a number of reasons), that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for your phone company to sell your location information to third parties.

The report did mention one class of people for which this is not true: apparently this location information is being used by bounty hunters to more efficiently track down fugitives. And, well… why exactly is that a bad thing, to take some of the uncertainty out of hunting down dangerous people, which (among other things) helps them to reduce the risk of anyone getting hurt in the process?

Several reasons. One is that it violates due process. Another is that the cell companies claimed they weren’t doing it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The report did mention one class of people for which this is not true: apparently this location information is being used by bounty hunters to more efficiently track down fugitives.

You do realize that that also means that means that you are also trackable in real time by anybody who wants to plug into that data, and maybe their intent is to rob your house while you are away visiting you mother, and they do not need to leave until you are a few miles away.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Why not? If someone has my location data, they’ll learn that I spend most of my time at home or at work, and that I occasionally spend time at restaurants, going to movies, going to church, shopping, training at a local dojo, etc. They might uncover the rather salacious detail that I visit somebody in a town 30 miles away on a semi-regular basis… until a bit of digging reveals that that’s my parents’ house. Honestly there’s nothing particularly ground-shaking there.

But the opportunity for misuse goes beyond sending you targeted ads.
Lets use a possible non-advertising example here. Your cell carrier sells your location tracking data to your car insurance carrier. Your 30-mile semi-regular trips are frequent enough to be considered routine or commuting according to their contract with you. This is beyond the scope of your original agreement and sufficiently increases the risk under your profile. So they automatically increase your insurance premiums.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:Tricks

long ago it was established..
that corps like to either take BIG or little steps.
Take 1 step, then another. to get what they want..

Information is a big key in allot of things..
AND YES, your browser Does track you..Look at your history file, and understand something…Thats only RECENT, the rest has already been taken off your computer.

Ever notice that when you buy stuff, you all of a sudden get notices on FB to buy more from amazon??
The corps gather more info on us then the gov. ever did or will. I find it strange that when the FBI/CIA/Any agency WANTS to find someone they should JUST GO TO THE CORPS..

Your credit card corp tracks every purchase, and can pull up recent and OLD data on you.. They even know your pets name(if you ever gave it to anyone on the net)..

And if you dont think they know WHO your parents are and where they live, Goto a Genealogy site or a name search site, or even a phone number site..
(yes there has been an incident recently)(more then 1)

And a strange little fact about Fugitives using phones..If they are stupid enough NOT to buy a Pay-as-you-go phone, that requires NO ID…they need to be caught.

Its fun to watch TV cop shows and see the THINGS they wish they had…The problem here for the Corps, they ARNT supposed to do this.. BECAUSE, if the Gov. shared with them, the Gov COULD track you down within a 3′ range, any time you are alive.(PS. they are working on that also)
(your chip is in the mail)

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Congress, senate, president...

‘If they’re not getting paid, neither are you. If they can be expected to work without pay and hope that they get back-pay after the fact, then so can you.’

Yeah, if that were a rule in place government shut-downs like the current one would be all but unknown, and any that did crop up would be over within a week.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Congress, senate, president...

You actually think most of them care about a few months worth of their salary? Oh sure, some of may need that money now, but most of them don’t have any urgent need for it, and many of them don’t need it at all.

~207 of them have a net worth over $1 million (not including their primary residence), and another ~38 have assets worth over $1 million (though liabilities push their net worth down, also not including primary residence). The Senate actually has a majority of its members with net worth above $1 million, so there’s little chance financial pressure will produce a veto proof majority there.

Trump, of course, is worth at least a couple billion.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: The real question is...

The only way to shorten the length of (or prevent all together) government shutdowns is to stop the paychecks of the congressmen/women and senators also during government shutdown.

Not at all; this would only punish the honest representatives who derive all or most of their income from their government salaries. It wouldn’t bother the ones who are making money from external sources.

What they should do isn’t limit their pay, it’s limit their job comforts — reserved parking, things like that. It may sound like a minor thing, but I’m serious; introducing a constant series of inconveniences really is a good motivator.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: The real question is...

Er… No. They’re salaried. They get XYZ dollars per year, under contract.

The hourly workers in government are all Union. They get paid anyway, just delayed.

The only people who don’t get paid anyway are outside contractors, and then only if the contracts somehow get cancelled – anyone signing a Federal Contract without making sure they’re going to get paid for their work is an idiot.

So all these “government shutdowns” do is… allow for a lot of blaming, finger-pointing, and other forms of grandstanding.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The real question is...

Ahh. The asshole has arrived. This shutdown will leave thousands of people in ruin. This is far more than just grandstanding. Anyone thinking differently needs to get their head out of their ass and actually look around at reality.

Just ignore that many are so underpaid that they live paycheck to paycheck. That missing a single pay cycle could mean the beginning of a spiral into perpetual debt.

Ignore the idea of a lean operation or one that gets a majority of its funding from a government agency. If 75%+ of your business comes from government contracts, and none of those contracts are coming in, how will you pay your workers oh mr master contract negotiator?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: The real question is...

A delay in pay can be, and often is, devastating to whole families. That the paycheck will come later does not stop bills from being due. It does not change rent. It does not pay for groceries now, and food is needed now not at some nebulous later.

The effect of the shutdown is real. And if it drags on, it will become even worse. A long-lasting government shutdown is likely to cause a serious economic down-turn.

stderric (profile) says:

Pai has made it fairly clear by now that he sees government consumer protection oversight as largely unnecessary

I’ve actually gotta disagree with this, or at least how it’s phrased. I would say that Pai sees government consumer protection as being very necessary: if it wasn’t so important to so many people, helping to destroy it wouldn’t be earning him that big payday when he returns to the private sector. In other words, I don’t think Pai’s some sort of free market utopia true-believer with a warped perspective; he’s just a run of the mill greedy sociopath who knows exactly what he’s doing.

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