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?

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

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

    Why bother? It wont be worth a toss!

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