FCC To Dole Out Some Dainty Wrist Slaps For Wireless Carrier Location Data Scandals

from the ill-communication dept

As you know by now, all four major wireless carriers have been selling access to user location data for the better part of the last decade to pretty much any nitwit with a nickel. Journalists subsequently exposed how nobody was really policing the use of this data, resulting in it being abused by law enforcement, people pretending to be law enforcement, and even stalkers. Worse perhaps, wireless carriers were even selling access to even more sensitive 911 emergency location data, something that's very clearly prohibited.

It's that last bit that probably finally forced the hand of Ajit "what broadband competition problem" Pai, who after a year of doing nothing is poised to announced that AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint are likely to soon face a collective $200 million fine (warning: WSJ paywall):

"The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will propose fines for the nation's largest telecom companies for selling the location data of their customers without consent. In all, the FCC says the carriers should pay around $200 million, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Wall Street Journal first reported the fines, and said the action includes AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon."

Assuming wireless carriers don't win an appeal and the FCC follows up on the fine, that's around $50 million per company, which isn't likely to be much of a deterrent. AT&T's revenues last year topped $180 billion, and these four companies have received tens of billions in Trump tax cuts, regulatory favors (killing net neutrality, broadband privacy rules), and other perks during the last three years of the Trump administration. AT&T alone scored an estimated $42 billion from the Trump tax cuts in exchange for promises the company completely lied about delivering. Accountability has been nonexistent.

In total, $50 million is a pretty great deal given these companies likely made countless billions over the course of a decade selling access to this data. Needless to say, lawmakers like Ron Wyden released statements to journalists making it clear he wasn't particularly impressed by this regulatory theater:

"Based on today’s news reports, it seems clear Chairman Pai has failed to protect American consumers at every stage of the game – this issue only came to light after my office and dedicated journalists discovered how wireless companies shared Americans’ locations willy nilly. He only investigated after public pressure mounted. And now his response is a set of comically inadequate fines that won’t stop phone companies from abusing Americans’ privacy the next time they can make a quick buck.

"Time and again, from Facebook to Equifax, massive companies take reckless disregard for Americans’ personal information, knowing they can write off comparatively tiny fines as the cost of doing business. The only way to truly protect Americans’ personal information is to pass strong privacy legislation like my Mind Your Own Business Act to put teeth into privacy laws and hold CEOs personally responsible for lying about protecting Americans’ privacy.”

The FCC is expected to offer more details at its Friday meeting. Of particular note will be what the FCC requires carriers do with the decade-plus of consumer location records already collected, and how diligent the agency will be to ensure this doesn't continue. Knowing AT&T and Verizon pretty well, it would be unlike them to leave tens of billions in location data revenues on the table, especially given the feckless nature of this FCC. It wouldn't be all that hard to revamp and rename these programs, purge 911 data specifically from collection, then bury these new projects under layers of subsidiary deniability and obfuscation.

After all, who's really going to make sure they've learned the error of their ways? Ajit Pai? The former Verizon lawyer that has rubber stamped every fleeting desire of some of the most anti-competitive and scandal prone companies in American history?

Filed Under: ajit pai, fcc, fines, location data, privacy
Companies: at&t, sprint, t-mobile, verizon


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Feb 2020 @ 7:17am

    $50 million per company, which isn't likely to be much of a deterrent. AT&T's revenues last year topped $180 billion,

    To bring those numbers down to something a little more understandable, that percentage of income (0.278%) is the same as someone who makes $50,000 having to pay a fine of $13.89.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Feb 2020 @ 2:11pm

      Re:

      To bring those numbers down to something a little more understandable, that percentage of income (0.278%)

      0.0278%

      is the same as someone who makes $50,000 having to pay a fine of $13.89.

      $50,000 per year. The $13.89 is correct.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Feb 2020 @ 7:18am

    due process

    so un-elected federal bureaucrats should have open-ended authority to define civil legal offenses across the entire US communications sector -- then indict, judge, and punish offeders, at FCC staff discretion?

    sounds like constitutional due process is entirely absent.

    what dollar amount of specific fines do you recommend, if $50M is way too low?

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

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 28 Feb 2020 @ 7:26am

    The way fines should be

    I would feel better if fines were legislatively defined as double whatever profit was made, with 50% going to those harmed and 50% going to something that is not the fining agency. We could quibble about what that something is, but it should not benefit the fining agency directly or indirectly.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Feb 2020 @ 2:12pm

      Re: The way fines should be

      well, the FCC is an independent regulatory agency of the United States government and can assess whatever fines they feel like.

      a Trillion Dollar fine for each carrier in this case might be the optimum solution -- bankrupt them them out of business and then all customer dissatisfaction with them will cease permanently.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Feb 2020 @ 9:06am

    Who pays these fines?
    Yeah, you guessed it .. you do. Corporations do not pay fines, they simply add that to the overhead of running the business.
    The present method of fining corporations looks like just another tax upon the populace.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Feb 2020 @ 9:11am

    Why bother? It wont be worth a toss!

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

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 28 Feb 2020 @ 12:08pm

    Question

    Can we file against them and have them PROVE how much they have gained from MY/OUR personal info??
    Then, can we FILE for them to pay us an amount Equal or greater??

    Since they have lost this case would it NOT go to the Citizens Favor to SUE them, Or at least for Services rendered for our Data, $100 per instance??

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Feb 2020 @ 2:15am

    All of these problems are the fault of Obama, who was sold to everyone as some kind of wunderkind of tech, but didn't improve a solitary thing about our digital infrastructure, so don't tell me that 3 years of Trump, an administration which has been resisted in every way and at every level, is somehow to blame for the mess.

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

    • identicon
      Talmyr, 29 Feb 2020 @ 11:05am

      Re:

      Waaaaaah! Obama did it! Even though he has been out of power for three years and Trump reversed every advance he made!

      Trump has had very little resistance overall considering the level of law-breaking and corruption he, his family and his cronies have been doing for the last 4-5 years, He has had next to no opposition in this - this is all on him for his puppets throwing out all consumer protections.

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

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 29 Feb 2020 @ 12:37pm

      Re:

      Dear AC..
      So you are saying Trump hasnt done a Single thing??
      That the Republicans Didnt back everything he has done? No matter the logic or consequences..

      A rich man declares he pays more taxed then 100 of his employees.
      A person stand up and say to him.
      But those 100 Families, of 300-400 people, and they pay more in rents, Insurance, Utility bills, Cable TV, Fuel, cars, Clothing, maintenance then 1 rich person..
      $10 per hour per family is going Allot farther then 1 Rich person making $1-2 million per year.
      Which has more of an affect on the economy?

      What do you think of a person that makes Over $1000 per hour 24/7, sleeping, playing golf, Vacations anyplace in the world, working??

      So, lets cut taxes to the rich and not raise the min wage??
      Lets cut Pollution laws, and declare that Pollution isnt happening and CO2 levels arnt going up..Ok?(I like breathing Just O2.)
      Thinking that the corps will come back and rebuild the Old Manufacturing plants and make more jobs?? When th Cost of materials in the USA is about 10 times that of other nations??
      Lets give the corps more money and see if that helps..NOPE, just goes into the pockets. FREE MONEY.
      For some reason the idea of the Gov. being to big, is kinda correct. But they were the largest Employer, and with checks and balance were getting things DONE until someone DIDNT keep an eye on the corps. With cutting off the farmers to buy up their lands, and a fake oil shortage(games in economic control) they created a good share of the mess, as we NOW subsidize +60% of all food going to other countries(Exports) that goes to corps and gas prices that have no real meaning(old prices were about $30 per barrel and $0.35 per gallon at the pump, NOW $50 per barrel and $2.50-3.00..)

      As to Obama.
      They had him or Anyone that took that job, want to FIX things, and take the Blame for what was about to happen. It didnt matter WHO. but Obama didnt Do it. And Trump wont do it. Trump is Showing us Everything that needs to be fixed. and he is showing it blatantly, if you look.

      Isnt it strange that we are supposed to hire persons that are smarter then Ourselves to be in office. That should Know economics, and all the rest...but all we got are Corp stooges, and lawyers, and if you look it up, most of this is families that have had the jobs for years. If they dont get it in 1 state they will go live in another and get the job.

      So get abit of insight please and go have fun explaining how these idiots can Raise their OWN wages, and you CANT.

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

    • icon
      Toom1275 (profile), 4 Mar 2020 @ 8:27pm

      Re:

      Who had "A Whataboutobama to deflect from the fact it was Republicans that unilateralerally killed privacy protection" on their cards?

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


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