New FCC Commissioner: Hey, Maybe Somebody In Government Could Address These Wireless Location Data Scandals?

from the ill-communication dept

We've noted a few times now that while Facebook gets a lot of justified heat for its privacy scandals, the stuff going on in the cellular data and app market in regards to location data makes many of Facebook's privacy issues seem like a grade-school picnic. That's something that was pretty well highlighted by the recent Securus and LocationSmart scandals, which showcased perfectly how cellular carriers and location data brokers routinely buy and sell your daily travel habits with only a fleeting effort to ensure all of the subsequent buyers and sellers of that data adhere to basic privacy and security standards.

That was again exemplified by reports on how this data often winds up in the hands of bounty hunters, and can often include 911 location data that's supposed to be protected by law.

Throughout all of this, the Ajit Pai FCC has largely been mute and feckless. In large part because taking action would require actually standing up to the industry's biggest wireless carriers, something that's indisputably not in Pai's wheelhouse. New FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks apparently has no such reservations, and in an editorial in the New York Times doesn't tread gently, noting the scale at which this data can be (and is) abused for a wide variety of reasons:

"The misuse of this data is downright dangerous. The harms fall disproportionately upon people of color. According to the Pew Research Center, people of color rely more heavily on smartphones for internet access, so they create more of this data, which makes them more vulnerable to tracking. Researchers also know that location data can be used to target them with misinformation or voter suppression tactics. It can also lead to assumptions about a person’s race or income level, assumptions that can feed into discriminatory automated decision making."

Starks also suggests that, perhaps, somebody at the FCC and government might actually want to do something about it:

"The F.C.C. says it is investigating. But nearly a year after the news first broke, the commission has yet to issue an enforcement action or fine those responsible. This passage of time is significant, as the agency usually has only one year to bring action to hold any wrongdoers accountable before the statute of limitations runs out. Some may argue that the F.C.C.’s authority to take action against wireless carriers for this activity has gotten weaker in recent years, with the repeal of consumer-focused privacy and net neutrality rules during the current administration. But I believe that the commission still has ample authority to address these egregious pay-to-track practices."

As it stands now, when you sign your lengthy, unread privacy and acceptable use policy with your wireless carrier, that agreement is interpreted by a long line of companies (as many as 70!) to mean you've agreed to have your daily location habits collected, monitored and sold. And while many of these carriers now say they've stopped the practice in the wake of press coverage of these scandals, history suggests that perhaps you shouldn't trust the statements of giant wireless carriers at face value.

Filed Under: data, fcc, geoffrey sparks, privacy


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  1. identicon
    bob, 9 Apr 2019 @ 6:43am

    Re: somebody that should be fired.

    To clarify I'm talking about Pai.


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