Privacy advocates are calling on Congress to ensure the FCC leads a full investigation, and expect stiff penalties or new legislation to end this dangerous practice once and for all
Since the release of a bombshell Motherboard report detailing how cell phone companies sell access to users’ real time-location data, more than 20,000 people have called on Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to conduct a full investigation and take action to ensure that this never happens again. Digital rights groups Fight for the Future and OpenMedia have been leading the campaign. Since the report’s release earlier this month, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers expressed concern about the practice and are demanding answers from the FCC and carriers.
Three days after the report’s initial release, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) requested an emergency briefing about the carriers’ unauthorized sale of location data from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who ultimately refused. Legal experts have noted that the FCC has the authority to investigate the abuse of location data and assess whether or not the telecoms broke the agency’s rules, but so far there has been no sign of action from the Commission. New documents published by Motherboard this week show how one of the third -parties at the heart of the initial report lobbied the FCC to loosen restrictions on how the data it sells can be used.
"Selling cell phone customers’ real-time location data isn’t just gross or unsettling, it’s extremely dangerous," said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future (pronouns: she/her), "It’s not hard to imagine what could happen if this information fell into the wrong hands: a thief, a stalker, an abusive ex, an authoritarian government. People’s basic safety and security should not be a partisan issue, so it’s great that members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are speaking out, but we need more than words. We particularly need GOP lawmakers to call on their party’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, to immediately investigate whether laws were broken. And we need all of Congress to act to ensure that this practice is permanently banned, and that this never happens again."
Since the report’s initial release, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile have voluntarily agreed to end the sale of users’ location, but privacy advocates warn that this doesn’t go far enough. They are calling on the federal government to ensure there is a thorough investigation into whether existing laws were broken or whether new rules are required to ban this practice. If existing laws were broken, then activists expect the FCC to administer stiff penalties on the telecoms. If not, then Congress must act to ban the sale of location data without users’ consent.