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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?

Filed Under: ajit pai, congress, e&c, fcc, frank pallone, house energy & commerce committee, location, location data, privacy, shutdown


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  1. icon
    Thad (profile), 16 Jan 2019 @ 9:35am

    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.


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