The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to go after wireless carriers that have violated federal law by selling consumer location data. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a letter to lawmakers that one or more “Notice(s) of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture” will be issued in “the coming days” as an official declaration that a party broke FCC rules. Pai did not specify which carriers were implicated or what specific laws were broken, but wrote that the full commission would be apprised of the details in the coming days.
The announcement comes as the agency’s nearly two-year investigation into the unauthorized sale of consumers’ phone location data comes to an end. A 2018 report in The New York Times that laid out how service providers were giving data to third party aggregators sparked the investigation by the FCC. The carriers were selling their customers’ real-time location data to aggregators. Those aggregators then resold the data to other companies or released it online.
Bail bond companies, bounty hunters, and various law enforcement entities have been buying people’s location data for years. For example, Securus Technologies, a major provider of correctional-facility phone services, was found to be providing law enforcement with “unrestricted access” to location data purchased directly from major wireless carriers.
Lawmakers have expressed concerns about carriers selling real-time location data. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (D) said in a statement, “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.” It is likely that settlement discussions are already underway with the carriers accused of violating the law.
All four major U.S. carriers have since promised to stop selling customer location data to aggregators. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint said they had ceased, or at least significantly curtailed, the sale of customers’ location data. Verizon said it had terminated all such arrangements except with four roadside assistance companies.