Democrats Press FCC on Carriers' Sale of User Location Data

Mike Dano
11/11/2019

A group of Democrats in the House Energy and Commerce Committee reiterated a call for an FCC report on wireless operators' sale of their customers' location data.

The FCC "has failed, to date, to take any action," despite announcing it began an investigation into wireless carriers after being made aware of allegations in 2018, Democratic committee members wrote to the FCC. "And now time is running out since the statute of limitations gives the FCC one year to act," the letter says.

The Energy and Commerce Committee maintains legislative oversight across sectors ranging from telecommunications to food and drug safety. "This Committee has repeatedly urged you to act quickly to protect consumers' privacy interests, and unfortunately you have failed to do so," the letter says.

The letter -- signed by committee members including Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. -- was sent late last week to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. FCC officials did not respond today to questions on the letter from Light Reading; the FCC is closed today in observance of Veterans Day.

The letter acknowledges that wireless network operators have indicated they had stopped the sharing of real-time location data with data aggregators. "This is good news," the committee members write. "Nevertheless, we are concerned that the Commission is shirking its obligation to enforce the Communications Act and the rules it has issued to protect consumers' privacy."

At issue is wireless network operators' sale of customers' location information, which first came into focus last year when The New York Times wrote that Securus Technologies had been selling or giving away location data to a sheriff's office in Mississippi County, Mo., without a court order or any authorization. The situation then bloomed into a full-blown public-relations disaster for the industry after an investigative report from Motherboard found that LocationSmart was selling data from T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel -- one of the two Democrats on the five-member FCC -- has been an outspoken critic of the practice. "It has been over a year since we first learned that our wireless location data was up for sale. For just a few hundred dollars, shady middlemen were selling our location within a few hundred feet. Ask any consumer, they didn't sign up for this surveillance when they signed up for wireless service," she said in a statement to Light Reading. "But to date, the FCC has been completely silent about this security mess. It has inexplicably failed to offer any explanation about just what is going on -- and that's unacceptable."

Location info remains hot
What's noteworthy is that there are still third-party companies that profess to sell location information that appears to be derived from mobile networks. "We collect and analyze real-time mobile signals, GPS and other location data to produce and process billions of anonymous data points every day," startup Airsage notes on its website. The company said it sells "the most comprehensive population analytics and movement patterns on the market today. "

In the "privacy" section of its website, Airsage reports that it "only sources data from highly reputable partners that supply data that complies with the strictest privacy policies in the marketplace in the United States." The company also notes that "our data products and analytics depict the movement of people in aggregate -- not the movement of specific individuals."

Airsage has not returned requests for information from Light Reading.

Of course, a large number of Americans already willingly give up their location information every day simply by using applications like Google Maps, Facebook and even Pokemon Go, which use that location information to match advertisements with users, among other things. However, wireless network operators such as AT&T and Verizon have much more detailed -- and potentially valuable -- location information given that they must constantly track the location of their customers, regardless of the apps they're using, to provide them with mobile service.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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Mike Dano
Mike Dano
11/12/2019 | 1:27:41 PM
Update
In response to questions from Light Reading, the FCC said that it has received the letter and is reviewing it, and offered no further commentary.
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