The FCC's chairman has revealed that "one or more wireless carriers apparently violated federal law" in their sale of their customers' location data. He did not provide any details, nor did he name the specific carriers involved when the revelation was made late last week, but he did promise to release the details of the agency's investigation into the matter in the coming days.
At issue is wireless network operators' sale of their customers' location information, which first came into focus in 2018 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.
In response last year, the nation's top operators -- Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint -- said they had stopped the sharing of real-time location data with data aggregators like LocationSmart and Securus.
Nonetheless, after Congressional calls for an investigation into the situation, the FCC agreed to look into the matter. But even then, the agency has faced fire -- even from within the ranks of the FCC -- for what some critics argue has been its slow reaction to a potentially serious situation.
"I'm glad we may finally act on these egregious allegations. My question is: what took so long?" FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks commented on Twitter late last week.
"For a year the FCC was silent after news reports showed shady middlemen could sell your location from your wireless phone data. Today the FCC says this violates the law. It never should have taken so long. It put the privacy and safety of everyone with a wireless phone at risk," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote on Twitter late last week.
"I am committed to ensuring that all entities subject to our jurisdiction comply with the Communications Act and the FCC's rules, including those that protect consumers' sensitive information, such as real-time location data," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote to a group of lawmakers about the FCC Enforcement Bureau's investigation into the situation. "Accordingly, 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)."
Exactly what the FCC uncovered in its investigation, and what it might do to carriers as a result, will likely be determined in future agency meetings.
That said, the situation likely will again raise the issue of operators' apparent flippant use of their customers' location information -- undoubtedly a public relations situation they're likely hoping to avoid.