Responding to reports this week of unlicensed use of consumer phone location data, House Democrats have moved to call for an emergency staff briefing with the Federal Communications Commission to gauge its progress on addressing an issue that first surfaced eight months ago.
Earlier this week, Motherboard published the results of an undercover investigation, revealing for the first time a black market pipeline for phone location data amassed by T-Mobile and its major competitors. The data was being sold to “location aggregators” that typically service marketing agencies and various emergency services. The report further described how the data, which law enforcement would typically require a warrant to obtain, was offered by a third-party company to bail bond agents, who in turn had been using it to apprehend criminals and suspects on the lam—a use of the private information that was not authorized by the phone companies that collect it.
In a letter to FCC chief Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., called for an emergency briefing to discuss the legal quandary, which first surfaced in May 2018. The FCC was notified last year to the issues by Sen. Ron Wyden, as detailed by the New York Times, which found that private location data was being funneled to law enforcement officials through extralegal transactions involving a firm with access to the private information of millions of cellphone users.
“Bad actors can use location information to track individuals’ physical movements without their knowledge or consent,” reads Pallone’s letter to Pai. “If recent reports detailing the cheap, accurate, and easy accessibility of legally protected, real-time location data are true, we must work expeditiously to address these public safety concerns. If we don’t, the privacy and security of everyone who subscribes to wireless phone service from certain carriers—including government officials, military personnel, domestic violence victims, and law enforcement officials—may be compromised.”
Pallone further accused the commission of having “dragged its feet in protecting consumers,” saying the FCC must take immediate action to ensure that wireless carriers are not enabling the “rampant disclosure of real-time location data.” The FCC, the committee chairman said, must also take enforcement action against any phone companies that have violated the agency’s rules “and the trust of their customers.”
Following calls by multiple Democratic lawmakers for investigations into T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint, spurred by the Motherboard report, each of the telecos scrambled to release statements saying they would soon sever all ties to the aggregator firms from which they’ve profited for years. A spokesperson for AT&T, for example, said, “In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have decided to eliminate all location aggregation services,” adding: “even those with clear consumer benefits.”
Until now, Democrats have been largely unable to exert any oversight over the Trump administration’s FCC. That changed this month when the party took control over the House of Representatives. The agency is now preparing to be bombarded by questions from Democrats, whom Pai has largely ignored for the past two years.
The FCC is among the agencies significantly impacted by the government shutdown. All business before the agency has been halted, except for what’s considered necessary for “the protection of life and property.”
Read Pallone’s full letter here.