1 Year Later, FCC Finally Admits Wireless Carriers Broke The Law On Location Data

from the took-ya-long-enough dept

It only took a year of stonewalling, feet dragging, and dodging journalists' questions, but the FCC has finally acknowledged that one or more wireless providers broke the law by collecting user location data--then selling access to that data to any nitwith with a nickel. In a letter (pdf) sent to Representative Frank Pallone last Friday, FCC boss Ajit Pai acknowledged for the first time that a year-long investigation into the wireless industry that the FCC has completed, concluding that yeah, one or several companies likely broke the law:

"I am writing to follow up on my letter of December 3, 2019 regarding the status of the FCC’s investigation into the disclosure of consumers’ real-time location data. Fulfilling the commitment I made in that letter, I wish to inform you that the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has completed its extensive investigation and that it has concluded that one or more wireless carriers apparently violated federal law."

There had been some previous concerns among lawmakers that Pai had been trying to run out the clock to ensure carriers couldn't be held accountable, but some dogged reporting from Joseph Cox appears to have thrown a wrench into the works. Pai also proceeded to note that fines are likely coming for one of several of the unnamed companies:

"in the coming days, I intend to circulate to my fellow Commissioners for their consideration one or more Notice(s) of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture in connection with the apparent violation(s)."

If you didn't know, wireless carriers spent the last decade tracking your every movement, then selling access to that data to pretty much anybody. Not too surprisingly, the folks who bought that data -- ranging from law enforcement to stalkers -- abused the data in a universe of ways. Thanks in part to our brilliant decision to have absolutely no meaningful privacy laws for the internet era, and endless lobbying to ensure that companies -- especially the telecom sector -- face absolutely no penalty whatsoever for abusing the public trust for financial gain.

As a result, collecting your every waking online and offline movement and selling it to folks with few meaningful safeguards in place is considered acceptable and sexy, becoming the pastime of social media companies, app makers, and the telecom industry alike. But telecom specifically screwed up here by also selling access to even more accurate user 911 data, something more clearly in violation of the law and FCC policy. When the punishment drops, I'm guessing that 911 data collection winds up being the centerpiece of the FCC's complaint, since it's public safety related and harder to sweep under the rug.

The questions now are: who confirms wireless carriers actually stopped collecting this data? What happens to the data these carriers collected over the last decade? And how do we prevent this from simply happening again? Whatever FCC punishment gets doled out, I'd wager it probably fails to answer at one or several of these questions. It's also a pretty solid bet based on US regulatory history that whatever fines are levied, even if deemed "historic" by the FCC and a dutiful press, wind up being a tiny, tiny fraction of what these companies made selling access to this data for a decade.

And while AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile all claim they've stopped selling this data, I'd wager a toe that's not actually, technically true. One, they know full well nobody in this government will actually do the kind of deep audit required to actually check. Two, it would be fairly easy to just stop using the 911 data, rename all of your other location data projects, then bury them in layers of subsidiary and third-party deniability. There's very little chance that these companies left billions of dollars on the table just because of some bad press and a belated, half-hearted inquiry by former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai.

Filed Under: ajit pai, data sales, fcc, frank pallone, location data, privacy
Companies: at&t, t-mobile, verizon


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2020 @ 7:38am

    selling access to that data to any nitwith with a nickel.

    "Nitwith"?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ehud Gavron (profile), 4 Feb 2020 @ 9:24pm

      Re:

      Yeah, Karl is a nitwith.

      (It's like a nitwit, but someone who doesn't get it no matter how many times you help them see the light.)

      Best regards, nitwith... er... Karl.

      E

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2020 @ 7:45am

    Thanks in part to our brilliant decision to have absolutely no meaningful privacy laws for the internet era,

    This condemnation seems a bit odd given all the times Techdirt has excoriated people who think that privacy on the Internet is a meaningful concept and isntead suggested that it should properly be seen as a set of tradeoffs, of "privacies" you give up in order to gain something of value.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2020 @ 9:16am

      Re:

      Because it's one thing to willingly use something despite knowing the issues with privacy, it's a completely different matter when you have to do the same due to the lack of an opt-out/opt-in mechanism and no viable alternatives.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2020 @ 9:30am

        Re: Re:

        Turning your phone off would be an opt-out mechanism, as would leaving it at home—which was considered perfectly viable 10 years ago. Is the pressure to carry a turned-on cellphone everywhere you go stronger than the pressure to use services like Facebook?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nathan F (profile), 4 Feb 2020 @ 8:21am

    As happy as I am to see this happen, I have to wonder if the fine is even going to be a fraction of the amount they earned selling the information. It is all well and good to censor and punish them for the violation of the law, but when the payoff is many times the value of the fine it doesn't act as any kind of real deterrent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 4 Feb 2020 @ 9:44am

      Re:

      As happy as I am to see this happen, I have to wonder if the fine is even going to be a fraction of the amount they earned selling the information.

      Oh I'm sure it will be. .001% is a fraction after all.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2020 @ 12:51pm

      Re:

      This is why the fine should be from 10% to 1000% MORE than the amount of revenue they received doing whatever 'shady practice' they are being fined for this time...

      Sliding scale so they have to at least pay more then they made, now exactly how much more depends on how 'shady' the activity was...

      Selling our data to other companies - 10% more than earned
      Selling our data to Russia and other foreign governments - 1000% more than the amount earned... to prevent future companies from thinking they can make a 'quick sale'

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2020 @ 9:26am

    more

    What specific law(s) were allegedly violated by the Carrier(s) ?

    If "wireless carriers spent the last decade tracking your every movement" -- then obviously Pai's FCC predecessors also ignored the problem.
    Why is Pai the lone government villain here ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2020 @ 9:33am

      Re: more

      If "wireless carriers spent the last decade tracking your every movement" -- then obviously Pai's FCC predecessors also ignored the problem.

      That's faulty reasoning. To say they ignored it would generally be taken to mean they knew about it. Maybe they did but I don't recall seeing evidence.

      Pai isn't portrayed as a villain here—just a weak regulator ("belated, half-hearted").

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2020 @ 9:26am

    who confirms wireless carriers actually stopped collecting this data?

    Collecting or selling? The story says the sale was illegal, and doesn't say the collection or storage was. Is it? I wouldn't expect them to collect 911 data when I'm not calling 911, and there's no need to store any of this data for more than maybe a few minutes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2020 @ 11:13am

    Strange ... the Federal Communications Commission is not very good at communicating.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    CaesarAlan, 4 Feb 2020 @ 3:45pm

    And while AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile all claim they've stopped selling this data, I'd wager a toe that's not actually, technically true.

    Careful, you might just lose that toe...

    I suspect their statements will turn out to be technically true (by which I mean true in a specific, very narrow, sense - the kind that involves a lot of semantics and squinting really hard).

    What they won't be is true in any way that's remotely meaningful. As that would mean giving up all those sweet, sweet nitwit nickels.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 4 Feb 2020 @ 9:51pm

      Re:

      'Oh no no no, we are most certainly not selling that data. We are selling an entirely different service that by pure coincidence just so happens to include that data. Honest, no idea how that happened, but we promise we'll get right on that just as soon as we can.'

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2020 @ 4:17am

    They admit a law was violated and yet there is no prosecution?
    What happened to zero tolerance?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2020 @ 11:44am

      Re:

      What applies to them does not apply to us and vice versa.

      They play by a completely different and more permissive rulebook than any of us will ever have the privilege of being judged under. At least for the foreseeable future. Complain all you want. Protest all you want. (In an officially sanctioned free speech zone while avoiding any "fake" talking points of course.) You won't change a thing so long as the powers that be retain their power. Just don't become too big of an annoyance to them, or you'll see just how different those rulebooks really are.

      US Democracy is dead. It lasted for a while, but for it to endure people have to be willing to fight to protect it. Those people are too busy watching the super bowl and caring only for their own wallets to bother doing so. They also hate each other, a fact the powers that be love to remind them about at every turn. Again too busy worrying about that person voting down the street instead of the local incumbent redrawing the district lines and changing voting laws to favor themselves. Too busy fighting over scraps in the trash to notice the big steak being thrown in the incinerator. Too busy worried about someone else getting ahead of them to allow the defrauded to receive justice. Too busy worried about paying insurance premiums rather than getting rid of the middlemen for good. Too busy worrying about holding teachers accountable rather than questioning why the local college's remedial classes are always full despite constant "growth" and "improvement" with test scores nationwide. They ask the wrong questions, and they know they ask the wrong questions. They don't actually care, because if they did they would find nothing but hard work and decisions in front of them to deal with. It's much eaiser to blame it all on someone else and throw their hands up than to actually defend their democracy. So they don't, and anyone can get away with anything. As long as you have the right amount of cash and connections that is....

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dave P., 5 Feb 2020 @ 11:26am

    Ajit Pai lounging around?

    Gosh - and there I was thinking that Ajit Pai was actually doing something for a change!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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