These Wireless Location Data Scandals Are Going To Be A Very Big Problem For Ajit Pai

from the get-your-popcorn-ready dept

It took the press the better part of a decade to finally realize that cellular carriers have been routinely hoovering up and selling your daily location data to every nitwit on the planet with zero meaningful ethical guidelines or oversight. And while this stuff is certainly nothing new, the recent Motherboard report showing how cavalierly your private data is bought and sold along a massive chain of shady operators seems to have finally woken everybody up on the subject.

Whether we actually do something about it is another issue entirely.

Pressure has started to mount on FCC boss Ajit Pai in particular. Why? While people rightfully obsessed on Pai’s attacks on net neutrality, the repeal itself effectively involved neutering most FCC oversight of ISPs and wireless carriers, then shoveling any remaining authority to an FTC that lacks the authority or resources to really police telecom. This neutering of already tepid oversight was always the telecom lobby’s plan, and unless you’ve got a severe case of denial, it’s obvious the Pai FCC acted as a mindless rubber stamp in helping the industry’s biggest players achieve this goal.

Of course the GOP helped as well, by quickly kowtowing to telecom sector lobbyists and, in March of 2017, voting to kill some fairly modest FCC privacy rules before they could take effect. Those rules, in addition to some other requirements, would have given consumers far more power over how their location data is shared and sold among what, in some instances, has been proven to be a chain that in at least one case was some 70 companies long.

The problem for Pai is he now has to go before Congress and explain how demolishing the FCC’s ability to actually police this problem serves the common good. And, as Gizmodo notes, how he worked very closely with industry to specifically ensure these companies can’t be seriously held accountable for a long, long history of really dubious behavior:

“To put it another way, the feckless ineptitude displayed by Pai since this phone-tracking scandal first broke nine months ago is not unintentional but reflects the precise level of power major telecoms wanted him to wield and no more. This circumstance, under which virtually anyone can pay money to physically locate the owner of a mobile phone, was engineered?as was the crippling of the agency that, under the former administration, would have had complete authority to pursue and punish those responsible.”

Pai likely realizes the bad optics of this perfect storm. Under Pai, the FCC has largely ignored media requests for comments from reporters over the last few years, unless they were coming from outlets unwilling to criticize the agency (The Daily Caller comes quickly to mind). That changed this week however, when Pai was literally forced to directly answer the FCC press mailbox to assure everybody he’d be getting to the bottom of the location data scandal just as soon as the government re-opens:

It’s going to take a thorough investigation to explore the scope of the problem and ensure carriers are living up to their promises to cease this data collection and sale. The problem: you’d be pretty hard pressed to find a lawyer that believes the FCC has enough remaining authority to actually do anything about this, thanks in large part to Pai’s efforts to neuter the agency at carrier lobbyist request. The FCC does have some remaining authority under Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) rules (expanded in 2005 to include location data), but it’s far from clear that’s enough, or that Pai would act anyway.

While Pai is busy trying to tapdance around those questions, the lawsuit over net neutrality will also be heating up, showcasing how Pai’s FCC engaged in all manner of dubious behavior from concocting a DDOS attack to blocking inquiries into comment fraud to try and downplay massive backlash to his assault on net neutrality. On top of the fact his agency made up tons of data to justify the extremely unpopular decision. None of this is going to be a particularly enjoyable ride for Mr. “internet freedom,” whose post-FCC political ambitions couldn’t be more obvious.

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Comments on “These Wireless Location Data Scandals Are Going To Be A Very Big Problem For Ajit Pai”

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43 Comments
Bamboo Harvester says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Ajit Pai is the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He was designated Chairman by President Donald J. Trump in January 2017. He had previously served as Commissioner at the FCC, appointed by then-President Barack Obama and confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate in May 2012.

Toom1275 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Before May 2012, Pai was some rando Verizon lawyer Mitch McTurtle picked for the position, approved with essentially a “yeah, whatever.” For the next five years, Pai worked hard to establish a solid half-decade legacy of a complete lack of moral integrity and utter contempt for the American public at every opportunity he could, which made him ideally suited to be a Trump pick.

David says:

I don't see any problems for Ajit Pai ahead

The whole point of relinquishing the authority to do something is that you are no longer to blame. Congress agreed to shift the authority, so it’s Congress’ job to hold the FTC accountable (and funded) to handle the responsibilities they have been given.

Ajit Pai managed to pass the buck, under what flimsy pretenses whatever. It’s no longer his responsibility.

Skippy (profile) says:

Re: I don't see any problems for Ajit Pai ahead

First off, it is Congress’ job to hold both the FCC and the FTC accountable as they are agencies put in place to do their work.

Second, the courts are yet to determine if the FCC could actually relinquish the authority it is trying to relinquish to the FTC.

Third, as noted in the article, location data still falls under the authority of the FCC.

Lastly, Pai is a tool that does not serve the people of the US and needs to be removed from his position.

Carlie Coats says:

Turn this into a copyright-violation problem: My life is a piece of performance art before God, and as soon as it is “fixed” by recording it, it is a copyright item.

In the absence of a specific written transfer of copyright, that copyright belongs to *me*. Sale of it for commercial gain is criminal copyright infringement. Jail them, and also open them up for class-action suit by *all* those whose rights have been violated.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: kids

It’s pessimistic in the extreme to believe that all “presidents and decision makers” make such poor, self-serving decisions that they leave that same legacy.

I prefer to think of it as good and bad decision makers. Some will be praised and respected long after they leave office. Others will be reviled as long as the public remembers their names.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Lies, damn lies, and statements by Pai

“The FCC already has been investigating this issue. Unfortunately, the investigation had to be suspended because of the partial government shutdown. It will resume once the shutdown has ended.”

I’m not sure why he thought that would excuse him, given I’ve no doubt whatsoever that he will put the same amount of effort into holding them accountable while the government is shut down as he will with it running at full steam.

I mean, it’s not like it would be possible for him to be less interested in holding those companies accountable for anything they do(kinda hard to sink below 0% after all), so the idea that the government shutdown somehow affected that is something I don’t buy for a second.

Heinrich Balderschwang says:

You left out: GOOGLE Plan To Sell Phone Location Data...

https://theintercept.com/2019/01/28/google-alphabet-sidewalk-labs-replica-cellphone-data/

Is on Drudge Report since yesterday, so how could you honestly miss it?

Techdirt ALWAYS omits GOOGLE from any list of miscreants because "sponsors" Masnick’s ridiculous little "think tank":

https://copia.is/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/sponsors.png

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: You left out: GOOGLE Plan To Sell Phone Location Data...

For once you do actually have a source with interesting data! I would recommend using the “Submit a story” link up at the top of the page to ensure that TechDirt gets alerted. You might want to stop with your usual accusatory nonsense, since that raises a barrier to listening to you.

Additionally, the second link is just an image. It’s lacking in anything that would make it verifiable? Could you please expand on this second link, including where you found the link, what it’s in reference to, or basically anything but a bunch of logos on a white background that anyone could have put together with a little time and an image-editing program.

I’m flagging your post due to the accusatory nonsense. For those interested in the story on Google’s foray into location data, I’ll relink, since I expect your post to be hidden soon:

https://theintercept.com/2019/01/28/google-alphabet-sidewalk-labs-replica-cellphone-data/

Rocky says:

Re: You left out: GOOGLE Plan To Sell Phone Location Data...

Actually, he didn’t name any company names at all which means he is sponsored by all of them – right?

If you bothered to read the article you linked to you would have understood that google is selling a simulation of movement patterns, ie no sale of actual cellphone data. Where google got that cellphone data from to model the simulation is more interesting, but you missed that.

So your statement “GOOGLE Plan To Sell Phone Location Data” is patently false.

I have to ask, do you actually read the articles you link to and misrepresent the facts or do you just make stuff up based on the headlines?

Rekrul says:

How is this a problem? It’s been demonstrated time after time that Congress doesn’t have any actual power over any of the agencies that they’re supposed to oversee. They send polite requests asking these agencies to answer questions, the agencies either ignore them completely or write back with a response that basically says “Screw you, we’re not going to answer your questions.” and nothing happens. Even when it’s proven that people lied to congress under oath, nothing happens. Even when it’s proven that the agencies are violating the law, nothing happens.

Pai passing the buck is the equivalent of being called into the principal’s office for chewing gum. If the student who mugged one of the teachers in front of the class didn’t even get suspended, what kind of a punishment is a gum chewer going to get?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It’s been demonstrated time after time that Congress doesn’t have any actual power over any of the agencies

Not having power and not using power are very different things. Congress has plenty of power, but actually using it would end the very nice ride they currently have.

Passing the buck works both ways after all. It would look pretty bad if the principle beat up a teacher, but if the students do it, well… that’s on them right? And sure, we could suspend them but every kid should be allowed an education, and it’s probably their parent’s fault they act like this anyway so sending them back home won’t fix anything…

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: To Much To Hope For

If he doesn’t resign all House committees should put him under oath. That way, when he lies, he goes to prison. Nothing would make me happier than Pai in an orange jump suit.

Nah, lying to congress is only a crime when a little person does it, Pai could tell the committee flat out that everything they think he’s done, things that anyone could easily verify were done by him, were done by another person entirely, and they’d let him off with a slap on the wrist at worst.

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