The FCC Hasn't Done A Damn Thing To Seriously Police Wireless Location Data Scandals

from the ill-communication dept

While Facebook (usually justly) gets the lion’s share of privacy criticism, wireless carriers haven’t been too far behind. In the last few years we’ve learned that they’re frequently hoovering up your daily location data and then selling it to a long chain of often dubious companies. More recently they’ve been busted even selling access to E-911 location data, which is increasingly even more accurate in tracking users than traditional GPS. We’ve noted repeatedly that lax ethical standards result in this data often being abused by dubious third parties, or used illegally by law enforcement or those pretending to be law enforcement.

Throughout these evolving scandals, the Pai FCC hasn’t done much of anything to ensure the public this is being adequately looked into. There’s been no critical statement about this practice issued by the FCC, and no meaningful investigation launched (at least publicly). And while wireless carriers have insisted they’ve stopped collecting and selling this data (which they’ve been doing for the better part of the last decade without anybody in either party much caring), their promises historically haven’t been worth all that much when it comes to the subject of privacy.

To truly address the location data scandal(s), carriers need to voluntarily or by force make it transparently clear they’ve stopped collecting and selling this data (which in several instances like E-911 data is against the law). Hoping to add a little fuel to the fire, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel this week ramped up her criticisms of the practice and the FCC’s apathy:

As part of that push, Rosenworcel sent new letters to each of the big four wireless carriers demanding more evidence supporting their claims that they’ve stopped this behavior, and asking what happens to the data that’s already been collected (which is, curiously I think, the first time I’ve even seen this question asked). The problem of course that given the Pai FCC majority is effectively a rubber stamp for industry at this juncture, it’s going to be hard to get a majority vote forcing these companies to be transparent and confirm they’ve stopped engaging in this behavior. Carriers like Verizon, for what it’s worth, insist they’ve learned the error of their ways:

“Verizon has led the industry in working to end agreements with location aggregators. We were first to take action when these issues surfaced last Summer. We followed through with our pledge and have fully terminated our location aggregator arrangements. We’re happy to talk about what we’ve done in this area with the Commissioner.”

Which again, might mean something if this was an industry that had any credibility on this subject. But Verizon in particular has a long history of collecting and monetizing user data without being transparent about it. And trying to downplay the scope of the problems with its behavior. And of course working tirelessly to scuttle every attempt at new privacy guidelines, no matter how modest. You know, like the fairly basic FCC privacy rules Verizon convinced Congress to quickly scuttle in 2017 that would have gone a long way in preventing these exact location data scandals in the first place.

And on the rare occasion the company is actually punished, the fines are often a tiny, tiny fraction of the money gleaned by whatever shady behavior they were engaged in, which does nothing to deter future bad actions (in fact it in some ways encourages it). And with Pai having just effectively neutered a lot of the FCC’s authority over ISPs at their lobbyists’ behest, it’s going to be harder than ever to force a serious reckoning on this subject should carriers prove uncooperative and non-transparent.

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Comments on “The FCC Hasn't Done A Damn Thing To Seriously Police Wireless Location Data Scandals”

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8 Comments
virusdetected (profile) says:

Not at all unexpected

Pai was a well-paid lobbyist for Verizon. You can bet he’ll be returning to Verizon when his stint as commissioner is done. He’ll almost certainly be well-rewarded for delivering everything his employer could imagine. This is an incredibly corrupt administration and Pai’s behavior is as expected. Unfortunately, this administration has set a new lower bound for "public servants" and we should expect future administrations to do no better. Historians will, eventually, trace the decline and fall of the United States to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which handed control of the government to corporate money. Get used to it.

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