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FCC: Some wireless carriers may have violated federal law on phone location data

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), certain wireless carriers may be guilty of breaking federal law if they have been selling your phone location data to third-parties — but they won’t say which ones.

A recent letter from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai revealed that a newly completed investigation by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau concluded that “one or more wireless carriers” have been found to have violated federal law as it relates to the exposure of consumers’ real-time location data.

Pai’s letter, which was published on Friday, January 31, revealed only a few details on the investigation itself. The letter was addressed to members of Congress and only mentioned that certain wireless carriers were found to have violated federal law.

The letter did not mention which carriers broke the law, nor did it specify which law was broken or what the possible penalties for breaking such a law would be. Pai’s letter did, however, emphasize his commitment to making sure that all entities that are subject to the FCC’s jurisdiction comply with its rules, and specifically focused on rules “that protect consumers’ sensitive information, such as real-time location data.”

Digital Trends reached out to the FCC for further information on Pai’s letter, but the agency declined to comment, instead preferring to “let the letter stand for itself right now.” But Pai’s letter to members of Congress wasn’t the only statement on the issue to have been released.

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel released her own statement on the matter on January 31. Rosenworcel’s statement provided some background information on the Enforcement Bureau’s investigation, refrencing 2018 press reports that “revealed that U.S. phone companies were selling access to their customers’ real-time location information to data aggregators.” In response to those initial reports, the statement mentioned that Rosenworcel sent letters to these wireless companies in an effort to “confirm whether they lived up to their commitments to end these location aggregation services.”

Commissioner Rosenworcel then issued the following strongly worded statement in response to Chairman Pai’s published letter, which included a few more details on the exact nature of the violation certain wireless carriers may have committed:

“For more than a year, the FCC was silent after news reports alerted us that for just a few hundred dollars, shady middlemen could sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. It’s chilling to consider what a black market could do with this data. It puts the safety and privacy of every American with a wireless phone at risk. Today, this agency finally announced that this was a violation of the law. Millions and millions of Americans use a wireless device every day and didn’t sign up for or consent to this surveillance. It’s a shame that it took so long for the FCC to reach a conclusion that was so obvious,” she said.

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.

— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) January 31, 2020

At this time, it’s unclear when further details on the FCC’s investigation into what appears to be the illegal disclosure of consumers’ phone location data by phone carriers will be released.

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Anita George
Anita has been a technology reporter since 2013 and currently writes for the Computing section at Digital Trends. She began…
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